Textile recycler Debrand unveils a new automation-forward facility in Surrey

The company is trying to tear through fashion waste more efficiently

When Vancouverite Amelia Eleiter worked in marketing back in 2003, she was tasked with developing branded assets like pop-up tents and product signage that would live to see a few weeks at most. “Because they were so specifically branded, they went obsolete very quickly,” says Eleiter, who, after years of doing this, could no longer ignore how wasteful that was. She quit and moved to Sri Lanka to volunteer with an international non-profit organization that employed sport as a tool to help develop tsunami-affected areas of the country. 

During her year there, Eleiter’s old coworker Wes Baker came to visit, and while on a surf trip in a remote beach in Sri Lanka, the pair found a pop-bottle wrapper with a brand name on it. “Even here,” says Eleiter, “in this far corner of the earth, there’s branded waste floating. And this is going back 16 years… it sparked a conversation between us around how one day, this is going to matter, that there’s literally an owner attached to this waste that’s floating in our oceans.” 

That surf trip was the catalyst to what would become Debrand, the Delta-based company Eleiter co-founded with Baker in 2008. The duo helps apparel and footwear companies like Lululemon, Aritzia, Canada Goose, Kit and Ace and IKEA Canada reuse and recycle textiles by specializing in reverse logistics solutions—the process of moving backwards in the supply chain.  

But it’s a slow and painstaking process—and one that hasn’t changed in a very long time. “Manual processes for sorting textiles have been the norm for the last number of decades, probably centuries,” says Eleiter, “and we just don’t have the system to deal with [the waste] efficiently.” 

Debrand receives piles of apparel from different brands, all in mixed condition and of mixed quality. The team of 30 assesses each item and tries to determine whether it’s recyclable or reusable, and if so, then how. In a climate of fast fashion and globalization, landfill is Debrand’s biggest competitor, says Eleiter, because it’s inexpensive and there are no legislative bans on it for textiles. “So why would they do it? They have to do it because they feel like it’s the right thing to do.” 

Last year, environmental solutions provider Waste Management (WM) invested in Debrand, marking the company’s first investment in textile recycling. The investment has allowed Eleiter and Baker to explore technological advancements for their processes, and yesterday, on September 14, Debrand announced the opening of its new 21,000 sq. ft. facility in South Surrey—developed to automate a lot of the company’s manual sorting processes.  

“Through this investment and through some of our partnerships, we’ve been able to identify the best types of automation equipment that will allow us to identify and then allocate products,” adds Eleiter. The new Debrand HQ will sport layers of tech like near-infrared technology (NIR) to determine whether a garment is polyester or cotton, conveyors, ballistic separators to separate mixed waste mechanically, and eventually, robotics and AI. 

Eleiter is particularly excited to see Debrand reduce fashion waste more efficiently. “This facility is the first of its kind in Canada,” she says. “A lot of the solutions have really stringent specifications when it comes to what they want for recycling… This facility is that first step to be able to actually get these garments to a place and into a condition where they can be useful, clean, consistent feedstock for the for the future.”