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Recycling Textile Waste into Yarn: Get to know Guy Dempster

"No effort is too small. Start where you can. Even a goliath ocean liner needs a small, nimble tugboat to guide it into harbour."

by Sarah McLean

27 March 2024

Last month, eBay Australia, supported by the Australian Fashion Council, proudly announced Dempstah as the recipient of eBay’s 2024 Circular Fashion Fund, marking a significant leap forward in advancing circular fashion within Australia.

Dempstah, an innovative textile recycling business, breathes new life into textile waste by recovering the fibres and spinning them into new yarn for knitwear. In this interview, Dempstah co-founder Guy Dempster takes us on a journey through his background, detailing his experiences from studying fashion in New York to working in the heart of textile manufacturing in Hong Kong and China.

His dedication to sustainability and circularity is evident as he discusses his vision for a future where textile waste is recycled and therefore transformed into a valuable resource. Furthermore, he shares his exciting initiative to establish a fibre recovery micro mill in North West Tasmania.

Could you share some insights into your background and the journey that led you to start Dempstah?

My background is in textile design and manufacturing. I’m from Sydney originally but moved to New York when I was 19 to study fashion at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and then on to Nottingham Trent University in the UK to specialise in knitwear and knitted textiles.

Pretty early on in my working life I started to feel like my understanding of our industry was precariously lopsided, especially as the conversation around the toxicity of the fashion industry grew louder. I was keen to better understand how textiles were really made. How did a modern mill or factory work? What were the industrial implications of our design choices? The true environmental cost and resource footprint?

In pursuit of greater insight I moved to Hong Kong in 2014, where I began working for a textile manufacturer with integrated dyeing and spinning facilities in Zhuhai, Guangdong, China. Visits to these facilities gave me the chance to work on the factory floor, receiving introductory training in manufacturing tech to inform my design of yarns and fabrics. From there I moved on to work for a knitwear manufacturer with facilities in nearby Dongguan.

My time in Hong Kong and Southern China was the most crucial of my career. I was awed by the ingenuity and skill of the practitioners I worked with, but also concerned with how our economic system incentivised overconsumption, and how few solutions there were to contend with the waste fallout.

My partner Otis and I eventually moved back to Australia, but a few years later the parent company of one of my former employers established The Billie System– a waterless, highly automated facility to mechanically recover fibre from textile waste, which could then be re-spun into new yarn and knitted or woven into new textiles.

I was enthralled by this tremendously resource-lite approach to recycling– especially its waterlessness, which I felt was pertinent to Australia. Dempstah began as an experiment to test the capacities of this fibre recovery process, and my interest in the practice has only deepened since.

What drives your commitment to circularity and sustainability?

I believe that reducing our consumption and collective footprint is the only healthy way forward to protect our planet, and transitioning to a more circular economic system that prioritises quality over quantity, resource reuse and biodegradability is a key part of that.

Second to this moral obligation, I’m driven by how intellectually and practically fascinating this frontier is. There is no shortage of need for the development of new systems and solutions, and new philosophical approaches to design and product lifecycle. It’s at once a crucial change we must race towards to save ourselves, but also a kind of thought renaissance.

Circularity feels like a very modern concept, but I often think back to the fact that prior to the industrial revolution human society was largely circular by default. Before synthetics, the fibres composing our clothes were all natural and biodegradable, and because we didn’t have the technology or logistical capabilities to pump out new textile products by the tonne, they required far more time and labour to produce, and accordingly were vastly more expensive and treated with a lot more care and respect; diligently maintained, repaired and reused.

The issue was that the labour to create textiles was so burdensome they were always scarce, and were inequitably unaffordable for most. Kate Raworth’s book ‘Doughnut Economics’ has really helped me better frame the idea of a sweet spot, in which we produce to meet our society’s fundamental needs, but stop short of depleting resources and exceeding our planetary boundaries.

I’ve also been inspired by reading ‘Glimpses of Utopia’ by Jess Scully– the former Deputy Lord Mayor of Sydney. Her writing has got me thinking not just about sustainability and circularity, but new organisational and business governance structures in which these values are held up as immutably equivalent to the pursuit of revenue or profit.

Congratulations for being named as the winner of eBay’s Circular Fashion Fund, can you tell us a bit about what’s next for Dempstah?

The funds, mentoring and industry inroads offered by the eBay Circular Fashion Fund will be put towards our core goal of developing our own mechanical fibre recovery capacities onshore.

This will take the form of a fibre recovery micro mill in North West Tasmania.

We own some land there currently, and early last year submitted a successful development application to expand the existing shed into a home-agri scale facility, suitable to house a sorting station, storage and the necessary fibre recovery milling machinery (the process has many names depending on where you are in the world, including garnetting, fiberisation and shoddy/mungo-making).

Initially we’re keen to keep this operation very lean, sourcing just the basic equipment to turn locally collected textile waste back into spinnable fibre at small-scale, but it would still provide us with a crucial means of developing our own practical understanding and expertise in this unique milling process, and the chance to knowledge share all that we learn with industry, unis and stakeholders.

Later this year Otis and I hope to embark on a bit of a learning and sourcing world tour to visit several other mills we’ve identified who practice various iterations of mechanical fibre recovery (including in Lahore, Pakistan, Guatemala City, Prato, Italy and Yorkshire in the UK), as well as a selection of machine manufacturers who can supply the necessary equipment.

How about your long term goals?

We’ll continue to work with our international mills and manufacturers, and have several exciting projects in the pipeline with them, but we’re also acutely aware that the lack of equivalent domestic recycling capabilities is keeping Australia stuck on unhealthy stopgaps like landfill and export dumping.

And while it’s imperative we seek to learn about recycling alternatives from international partners, relying on them alone to contend with our own waste puts Australia in a precarious position– the past few years have shown us all how dramatically global supply chains can be disrupted (by Covid lockdowns and global conflicts), and how legislation controlling the global trade of waste can shift overnight with seismic consequences (think China’s 2017 nation-wide ban on plastic waste imports).

There is no technological silver bullet or panacea for our waste crisis, and there is no sidestepping the biggest battle of all: a cultural shift away from overconsumption.

However improved resource recovery can still play a crucial role in the evolution of a circular economy, and our micro mill is a hopeful first step in discovering what role mechanical fibre recovery may play in what should be a diverse landscape of waste solutions across the country.

If you could impart one piece of advice to someone aspiring to delve into the realms of sustainability and circularity, what would it be?

Please please go for it! The more brain power we have going towards resolving the issues our industry faces the better.  

The one thing I would warn against is becoming too moralistic or dogmatic about your progress. I find myself constantly oscillating between two mindsets: ‘perfect is the enemy of good’ and ‘better is not best’. The former reassures that any progress, no matter how unrefined, is worthy, while the latter demands nothing but the ideal.

Working on Dempstah over the years, at times I’ve gotten stuck on the latter and languished, bogged down by a deep mistrust of our current systems, a cynicism towards proposed solutions, and a feeling like no path forward is without compromise so I’m better off sitting on the sidelines and avoiding the fray.

What I feel now is that you alone cannot fix every facet of every problem we face, and you shouldn’t have to. Ideally, you should be able to rely on a community of players who are improving their slice of the pie– whether it’s a specific point in a supply chain or a service you might rely on– allowing you to focus on yours. But in this you must also accept that progress is neither linear nor uniform, and that for every issue that has found a real solution, there are others that stubbornly lag behind.

Thankfully, the landscape of conscientious players and support for sustainable and circular solutions continues to grow, especially in Australia– eBay’s Circular Fashion Fund, Country Road’s Climate Fund, the Seamless Clothing Stewardship Scheme and the work of the Australian Fashion Council all attest to this.

And while we absolutely need top-down reforms and incentives from government and big private sector players, we also need bottom-up grassroots, community driven efforts to highlight and build cultural momentum.

No effort is too small. Start where you can. Even a goliath ocean liner needs a small, nimble tugboat to guide it into harbour.

Discover more about eBay's Circular Fashion Fund here, or stay informed about Dempstah's progress through their social media channels or official website.

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