Recycling to close synthetic fabric window on petrochemicals

Recycling to close synthetic fabric window on petrochemicals

As the decarbonization trend accelerates, fossil fuel players are counting on petrochemicals to keep a foothold in the global economy. Synthetic fabrics provide such a niche. However, the window of opportunity is shrinking as the fabric recycling industry expands, as illustrated by the firm UNIFI and its partners.

The materials industry discovers recycling

Not so long ago, turning plastic bottles and other waste into fabric was a niche occupied by a handful of pioneers. Now, the recycling movement has gone mainstream, and recyclers like Unifi are looking to expand their waste sources in partnership with enthusiastic manufacturers.

Unifi’s flagship product is a suite of recycled polyester yarns under the exclusive name REPREVE. The company started by recycling plastic bottles. In 2011, he started adding pre-consumer clothing factory waste to the mix. To find a source of supply, Unifi has launched a new initiative called the Repreve Textile Takeback program.

Early partners in the effort were fleece-making specialist Polartec and apparel maker Peckham, Inc.

Polartec was a natural partner for the program, having introduced the use of recycled plastic bottles to produce high-performance fleece in 1993. The 2011 tie-up with Unifi also built on previous collaborations between the two companies, allowing Polartec to increase its range of recycled products from less than 1% to more than 30% in just four years.

“Polartec pioneered the recycled fabric category and we continue our commitment to reducing our overall footprint. In 2011, more than 40% of our total production will use REPREVE 100 recycled yarns and we expect that number to increase in 2012 and beyond,” explained Polartec’s CEO. Andy Vecchione in a press release.

Upcycling for sustainability

Vecchione also noted the importance of recycling factory waste to produce new, high-quality fabrics, rather than recycling or disposing of it.

“In typical apparel manufacturing, 10-20% of all fabric produced becomes trim waste after the panels are cut,” he noted. “This fabric has always been turned into fleece or simply sent to landfill. Now we can use this waste stream to create new premium performance Polartec fabrics.

Polartec has held 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 product line, in partnership with Unifi and carbon manufacturing company Intrinsic Materials.

Closing the recycling loop

Unifi’s Textile Takeback recycling program has also grown and expanded to include post-consumer waste as well as pre-consumer, dyed and undyed factory waste.

Last week, the company announced a major expansion to the program to underscore its focus on a circular manufacturing model.

“We are excited to expand Textile Takeback™ to provide our partners with a sustainable solution that helps create a more circular supply chain for everyone,” said Eddie Ingle, CEO of Unifi.

The announcement was thin on details, but it does indicate that Unifi plans to expand its waste supply chain globally and expand into new applications as well.

Unifi also highlighted how the demand for more sustainable materials on the manufacturing side is driving its expansion. The company already has leading consumer brands, including North Face, Levi’s, Nike and Patagonia, on its Repreve list of 100% recycled textiles, and it obviously plans to involve more.

“Finding new ways to help our partners achieve their sustainability goals is always a priority,” said Meredith Boyd, senior vice president of technology, innovation and sustainability at Unifi.

The American military angle

As a primary consumer of goods and services, the US Department of Defense is well positioned to push the boundaries of petrochemical recycling. This could become another factor pushing virgin petrochemicals out of the apparel industry.

It seems to be in progress. The US military is a customer of Textile Takeback’s original partners, Polartec and Peckham. Polartec has leveraged this activity to boost its product line.

In 2019, Polartec announced its new Military Issue collection, based on 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 durability advantage over imitation military products.

The US military, for its part, appears to be on board. Last month, the Army’s Benelux Garrison in Belgium published an article highlighting the Army’s post-consumer recycling goals. The article also raised important questions about throwaway culture in general and plastics in particular.

“Over the past few years, the negative impacts of our current lifestyle on the planet have been well documented through awareness campaigns and in the media,” observed USAG Benelux’s Environment Division. “The extraction and processing of the materials, fuels and food needed for our daily lives is currently responsible for half of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions.”

“Additionally, gas emissions from plastics production are expected to double in a few decades if nothing changes,” they added, noting that the Army’s recycling target is currently 50% for the fiscal year. 25 and 75% for year 30.

That’s a leap from the current overall recycling rate, which the military puts at 34% in the US and 46% in the EU. USAG Benelux already has that pace, claiming an 81.6% recycling rate for FY22.

Beyond Recycling

U.S. petrochemical stakeholders may anticipate that federal reshoring policies will help increase domestic demand for materials made from virgin petrochemicals. However, they will face competition from biobased products as well as recycled products.

For example, last spring the military launched a call for proposals in the field of bio-based fabrics, materials and textiles for military purposes.

“The goals of this topic are to (1) demonstrate bio-based material in fabric/material applications that provide equivalent or superior performance in safety, fit, form, and function, (2) achieve capability improved support for seat belts, seat covers, canvas covers, blankets of all kinds, and (3) achieve longer detection time by using natural materials for camouflage purposes instead of shiny synthetic materials or standard reflectors marketed as camouflage,” the military explained.

Along with domestic sourcing and high-quality performance, the military also stipulated that bio-based alternatives should cost significantly less and be “renewable for the environment.”

The United States Department of Defense is behind the new “BioMADE” consortium, which was created in 2020 to accelerate the national bioeconomy at all levels. Stay tuned for more, including an interesting squid connection.

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Photo (cropped): Clothing made from recycled petrochemicals via

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