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By Tess Macallan, Journalist, Infrastructure Magazine

Due to the rigorous nature of construction projects, work clothes and personal protective equipment (PPE) experience plenty of wear and tear and are often sent to landfill once considered unwearable. However, initiatives such as the recent partnership between Major Road Projects Victoria (MRPV), Seymour Whyte and UPPAREL are enabling these assets to be recycled, creating new possibilities for discarded materials.

Waste is a significant issue facing Australia, with the construction sector one of the largest waste-generating industries in the country.

As the number of infrastructure projects continues to rise, recycling work clothes and equipment is one way the industry can improve circularity and promote sustainable waste management.

MRPV’s Pound Road West Upgrade team has joined forces with Victorian company UPPAREL to recycle used work clothes and PPE that would normally end up in landfill. Through a partnership between MRPV, its construction partner Seymour Whyte and UPPAREL, project workers are encouraged to hand in workwear and PPE they no longer use so UPPAREL can repurpose 100 per cent of the recoverable materials, with nothing sent to landfill.

Major Road Projects Victoria Program Director, Marc Peterson, said, “We’re excited to team up with UPPAREL on an initiative where every member of the project team can play their part to reduce waste in the construction industry, while supporting local business.”

An industry shift

The MRPV recycling initiative builds on the Victorian Government’s ecologiQ program, which is integrating recycled and reused content across Victoria’s $100 billion Big Build initiative and making the use of the green materials standard practice.

One driving force behind this change is the Victorian Government’s Recycled First Policy, which came into effect in March 2020. Under the policy, all tenderers on Victorian major transport projects are required to demonstrate, within their bid, how they will optimise the use of recycled and reused materials at the levels allowed under current standards and specifications.

The Recycled First Policy allows for continuous improvements to transport standards, specifications, research and development, helps create new markets and develop greener, more sustainable transport infrastructure outcomes.

Supported by ecologiQ, the policy has had a powerful impact resulting in commitments to use more than 3.3 million tonnes of recycled and reused materials, which is more than enough to fill the MCG. Over 2.4 million tonnes are already incorporated into Victorian transport infrastructure construction.

This includes:

  • 6,400t of recycled plastic – equivalent to more than a billion plastic bags
  • 86,026t of waste glass – equivalent to 13 million house bricks
  • 267t of crumb rubber – equivalent to more than 28,000 passenger car tyres

Partnered for success

UPPAREL is the only direct-to-consumer and commercial textile recovery and recycling company operating in Australia and New Zealand.

As a Certified B Corporation, the company is recognised as a leader in the global movement for an inclusive, equitable and regenerative economy.

UPPAREL CEO and Co-Founder Michael Elias, said, “At UPPAREL, we believe making a positive environmental impact is key to a sustainable future. Local partnerships such as this not only make a measurable impact but continue to raise awareness around the global issue.”

From its Braeside-based headquarters in Melbourne’s southeast, UPPAREL has diverted a total of nearly seven million items from landfill.

UPPAREL uses a non-chemical process which converts end-of-life textiles into sustainable materials that can be repurposed into new commercial products. These recycled materials can also replace non-sustainable materials such as polystyrene, fibreglass and cellulose that have traditionally been used in the manufacture of some consumer products.

Through UPPAREL, unwearable work clothing is able to be recycled into fibre that is used in a vast range of construction materials such as wall and ceiling insulation, furniture filling, flooring underlay, acoustic panels, suspended ceiling tiles and office partition walls. It can also be used in cushion filling, pet beds and protective packaging for products such as crockery and glassware.

Recycled PPE such as hardhats, safety glasses and boots are being repurposed into gym flooring, outdoor playground flooring and rubber mats. Any work clothing and PPE that is still in good condition is offered to UPPAREL’s charity and not-for-profit partners for reuse.

Sustainability made simple

The Pound Road West Upgrade team has responded very positively to the initiative, with a strong participation rate among workers and contractors. The items most commonly handed in have been hi-vis work shirts.

For workers and contractors, handing in their used work clothes and PPE has been a simple process. At the project’s site office, two boxes have been set up in the crew sheds every day, one for work clothing and the other for boots, hard hats, glasses and gloves. Once the boxes are full, they are freighted to UPPAREL’s Braeside headquarters.

The Pound Road West Upgrade project team has already handed nearly 500 items of work clothing and PPE to UPPAREL, resulting in a total of 80kg of materials being diverted from landfill and preventing the creation of 280kg of carbon dioxide.

Seymour Whyte Southern Region General Manager, Courtney Hoops, said, “Sustainability is a strategic priority for Seymour Whyte and adopting a circular economy approach to workwear is ‘smart business’ that’s good for the planet and promotes a social-responsibility-centred partnership – creating a sustainable future for all.”

Two other Victorian Big Build projects have also recently partnered with UPPAREL to recycle their used work clothes and PPE – the West Gate Tunnel Project and the Level Crossing Removal Project for the upgrade of the Frankston and Hurstbridge lines.

While these initiatives alone won’t solve Australia’s infrastructure waste issue, adopting sustainable waste management solutions can help promote circularity in the industry and leave behind a more positive impact on the environment.

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