As the decarbonization trend accelerates, fossil energy stakeholders have been counting on petrochemicals to maintain a foothold in the global economy. Synthetic fabrics offer one such niche. However, the window of opportunity is shrinking as the fabric recycling industry picks up steam, as illustrated by the firm UNIFI and its partners.
Materials Industry Discovers Recycling
Not too long ago, converting plastic bottles and other waste into fabric was a niche area occupied by a handful of pioneers. Now the recycling movement has gone mainstream, and recyclers like Unifi are reaching out to grow their sources of waste in partnership with eager manufacturers.
Unifi’s signature product is a suite of recycled polyester yarns under the proprietary name REPREVE. The company initially started by recycling plastic bottles. Back in 2011, it began to add pre-consumer apparel factory waste to the mix. To nail down a source of supply, Unifi launched a new initiative called the Repreve Textile Takeback program.
The initial partners in the effort were the fleece manufacturing specialist Polartec and the apparel maker Peckham, Inc.
Polartec was a natural partner in the program, having introduced the use of recycled plastic bottles to produce high performance fleece back in 1993. The 2011 hookup with Unifi also built on previous collaborations between the two companies, enabling Polartec to increase its recycled product line from less than 1% to more than 30% in just four years.
“Polartec has pioneered the recycled fabric category and we continue our commitment to reducing our overall footprint. In 2011, over 40% of our total production will utilize REPREVE 100 recycled yarns and we expect that number to grow in 2012 and beyond,” explained Polartec CEO Andy Vecchione in a press release.
Upcycling For Sustainability
Vecchione also noted the significance of recycling factory waste to produce new high-quality fabrics, rather than downcycling or disposing it.
“In typical garment manufacturing, 10 to 20 percent of all fabric produced becomes cut-waste left over after panels are cut,” he noted. “This fabric has historically been down cycled into batting or simply sent to the landfill. We can now use this waste stream to create new, first-quality performance Polartec fabrics.”
Polartec has busy since then. In 2018 the company launched a line of 100% recycled insulation called Power Fill. In 2019, it announced a new “Eco-Engineering” initiative with a goal of 100% recycled and biodegradable materials across its entire line of products, in partnership with Unifi and the carbon-tailoring firm Intrinsic Materials.
Closing The Recycling Loop
Unifi’s Textile Takeback recycling program has also been growing and branching out into post-consumer waste as well as pre-consumer factory waste, both dyed and undyed.
Last week, the company announced a major expansion of the program to underscore its focus on a circular manufacturing model.
“We are thrilled to expand Textile Takeback™ to provide our partners with a sustainable solution that helps to create a more circular supply chain for all,” said Unifi CEO Eddie Ingle.
The announcement was slim on details, but it does indicate that Unifi expects to expand its waste supply chain globally and expand into new applications, too.
Unifi also underscored how the demand for more sustainable materials on the manufacturing side is driving its expansion. The company already counts leading consumer brands including the North Face, Levi’s, Nike, and Patagonia on its Repreve roster for 100% recycled-bottle textiles, and evidently it anticipates bringing others on board.
“Finding new ways to help our partners meet their sustainability goals is always top of mind,” explained Meredith Boyd, who is the SVP of Technology, Innovation & Sustainability at Unifi.
The US Military Angle
As a leading consumer of goods and services, the US Department of Defense is in a good position to push the envelope on petrochemical recycling. That could become another factor driving virgin petrochemicals out of the apparel industry.
That appears to be in the works. The US military is a client of the original Textile Takeback partners, Polartec and Peckham. Polartec has been leveraging that business to boost its product line.
In 2019 Polartec announced its new Military Issue Collection, based around the “GEN III Extended Cold Weather Clothing System” issued to the US military. To the extent that Polartec introduces recycled textiles into the new line, it will have the sustainability edge over imitation military products.
The US Army, for one, appears to be on board. Last month the Army’s Benelux garrison in Belgium posted an article that highlighted the Army’s post-consumer recycling goals. The article also raised some important questions about throwaway culture in general and plastics in particular.
“Over the last few years, the negative impacts our present way of life has on the planet have been well documented through awareness campaigns and in the media,” the USAG Benelux Environmental Division observed. “The extraction and processing of the materials, fuels and food needed for our day-to-day life is currently responsible for half of the total global greenhouse gas emissions.”
“Moreover, the gas emissions from the production of plastics are expected to double in a few decades if nothing changes,” they added, noting that the Army’s recycling target is currently 50% for FY 25 and 75% for FY 30.
That’s a steep jump up from the current recycling rate overall, which the Army puts at 34% in the US and 46% in the EU. USAG Benelux already has that beat, claiming a recycling rate of 81.6% for FY 22.
US petrochemical stakeholders may be anticipating that federal onshoring policies will help increase the domestic demand for material made from virgin petrochemicals. However, they will be facing competition from bio-based products as well as recycled products.
For example, last spring the Army put out a call for proposals in the area of bio-based fabrics, materials, and textiles for military applications.
“The objectives of this topic are to (1) demonstrate a bio-based materials in fabric/ material applications that provide matching or exceeding performance in safety, fit, form and function, (2) achieve enhanced supportability for seat belts, seat covers, canvas covers, covers of all kinds, and (3) achieve longer time to detection by using natural materials for camouflage purposes instead of the standard synthetic glossy or reflective materials marketed as camouflage,” explained the Army.
In addition to domestic sourcing and high-quality performance, the Army also stipulated that the bio-based alternatives should cost far less and be “environment-renewing.”
The US Department of Defense is behind the new “BioMADE” consortium, which was established in 2020 to accelerate the domestic bioeconomy across the board. Stay tuned for more on that, including an interesting connection with squid.
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Photo (cropped): Apparel from recycled petrochemicals via repreve.com.
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Source: Clean Technica