UBC WasteNauts are applying interdisciplinary knowledge to transform waste into a valuable resource.

UBC WasteNauts is a solutions-driven Engineering Design Team that encompasses sustainability in its engineering design processes and principles towards contributing to a more circular economy. Their goal? To radically minimize waste on our planet by applying knowledge from all fields to transform that waste into a valuable resource, enforcing the principles of a circular economy.

Article by Rynn Zhang, former co-lead of UBC WasteNauts Textile Waste Recycling project

WasteNauts projects are driven by a passion for a more resilient future and cutting-edge innovations that are in line with economic, environmental, and social sustainability values. They offer hands-on experience with power tools, materials testing, and additive manufacturing, as well as opportunities to improve soft skills such as public speaking, and conducting stakeholder consultations. 

The WasteNauts currently manage five unique and innovative projects that turn waste into other valuable resources, namely: Mine Tailings to Concrete, Hybrid Energy Harvesting Systems, Recycled Composite Paddleboard, Papercrete Bench, and the Textile Waste Recycling Project.


Responding to textile waste

The Textile Waste Recycling project, in particular, was initiated in 2020 by Kim Yao and Danielle Clark, who wanted to address waste generated from the mass production of fast fashion. In China, the United Kingdom, and the United States, textile waste is estimated to be 26.0, 1.0, and 12.4 million tons, respectively1. While the importance of recycling textiles is increasingly recognized, just 12% of the material used in producing clothing is recycled globally2.

The project is spearheaded by a team of folks from a multitude of disciplinary backgrounds who are united by their passion to radically change the fashion industry and have researched mechanical recycling methods such as cotton paper making, which informed a recent report on their experimental findings.

The team also hopes to raise awareness about the underestimation of waste stream textiles and the issues surrounding fast fashion. Too commonly, the Western world experiences a detachment from the reality of dehumanizing and unsafe working conditions found within garment factories, as well as the detrimental environmental impacts created by excessive textile production.


Global impacts of the textile industry

The textile industry is notorious for malpractice in its treatment of workers, and overt violations of human rights. These include withholding salaries, forced overtime, discrimination, and abuse3. Workers face unsafe and hazardous conditions, resulting in incidents like the 2013 Dhaka garment factory collapse, where a structural failure led to the collapse of the eight-story commercial building, killing 1,134 people. Workers also report that some fashion styles require the performance of dangerous techniques and the use of hazardous chemicals, without appropriate training and safety measures in place.

Negative impacts of the& textile industry extend to the environment, including water overconsumption and pollution. In 2015 alone, 79 billion cubic meters of water were consumed to produce clothing4 and synthetic textiles are estimated to release approximately 0.5 million tons of microfibres into the ocean each year through washing. Those microfibres accumulate freely in fish populations and other food chains.


Textile recycling at UBC

The need for textile reuse is evident, however, no matter how efficient or sustainable a recycling method is, it requires an accompanying collection system that is effective and encourages consumers to recycle their clothes instead of disposing of them as waste.

The UBC Vancouver campus currently lacks such a system. A previous attempt to put a textile collection system in place by Big Brothers of Greater Vancouver resulted in collection bins being removed due to safety concerns. Since then, the implementation of a textile waste collection system has not been prioritized at UBC’s Point Grey campus.

The Textile Waste Recycling team hopes to design a textile waste collection system that is readily accessible for students on-site, by utilizing its connections to different local initiatives that share similar visions.

The team has conducted stakeholder meetings with local organizations such as Big Brothers, Get Thrifty, UBC Housing, and more. At these meetings, steps to ensure success were discussed, including the use of consistent advertising and marketing, and placing collection bins in accessible areas like dormitory lobbies or high traffic areas in the Nest. Findings from these meetings will be used to ensure the effective and successful collection of textiles in the future. 


Where individual consumers can start

While structural change is imperative, individual choices are also important. To improve shopping habits in support of a more circular economy, start by purchasing less. If you’re a fashionista and enjoy having a variety of outfits, try experimenting with your wardrobe, or buying second-hand from thrift or consignment stores (they count as recycling!). You can also choose to invest in high-quality pieces that will last a long time and won’t go out of style by curating a capsule wardrobe.

It's also important to consider a garment’s value beyond just those that are economic. Use the following questions before you buy to look at value more holistically:

  1. Economic value (Is this garment affordable?)
  2. Environmental value (What kind of environmental effect does this garment have?)
  3. Social value (Who made my clothes and are they being treated fairly?)
  4. Comfort value (How comfortable does this garment make me feel when wearing?)
  5. Aesthetic value (How does this piece look?)
  6. Emotional value (What does this item mean to me?)


Stay connected

The WasteNauts’ Textile Waste Recycling team hopes to continue collaboration with initiatives such as Sustainable Fashion Week and to continue to research textile recycling methods in their lab. 

Learn more about UBC WasteNauts on InstagramFacebook, or their website and connect with the team via email at outreach@wastenautsubc.com.



[1] N. Pensupa, S.Y. Leu, Y. Hu, C. Du, H. Liu, H. Jing, H. Wang and C.S.K. Lin, “Recent Trends In Sustainable Textile Waste Recycling Methods: Current Situation And Future Prospects,” Top Curr Chem (Z), vol.76, pp. 275, 2017. doi:10.1007/s41061-017-0165-0 [Accessed 2 August 2020]

[2] A. Beall, “Why Clothes Are So Hard To Recycle,” BBC.com, [Online], July 2020.  Available: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200710-why-clothes-are-so-hard-to-recycle. [Accessed 2 August 2020]

[3] J. Corradini, “The clothing industry and human rights violations : consumption, individuals and the role of big players,” Thesis, 2018. [Online]. Available: http://repository.gchumanrights.org/handle/20.500.11825/819 [Accessed: Jan. 03, 2022]

[4] “The impact of textile production and waste on the environment (infographic) | News | European Parliament,” Dec. 29, 2020. [Online]. Available: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/headlines/society/20201208STO93327/the-impact-of-textile-production-and-waste-on-the-environment-infographic  [Accessed Jan. 03, 2022]