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From scrap to fabric

Markets | September 1, 2012 | By:

Fabric companies committed to recycling give testimony to long-term success.

The news is rich in stories about companies and individuals realizing the benefits of being “green,” and recycling is a part of that sustainability equation. Fabric manufacturers are continuing to recycle and create recyclable products. Some systems are closed-loop; some span continents. Others achieve their greatest impact regionally, and still others concentrate on in-house action. All rely on clear messaging, ease of participation and well-planned logistics.

Representatives of four of the companies that have had long-term textile recycling programs in place responded to questions about where their efforts have led and how the program is fulfilling expectations.

When did you start your recycling program?

Aurora Specialty Textiles Group Inc.

We’ve been recycling internally generated scrap and nonconforming fabric for decades. In 2008 we began segregating the scrap based on fiber type and, at the same time, invited our customers to participate by returning their used and scrap fabric to us for recycling.

Glen Raven Inc.
Since 1986, 100 percent of textile waste at our factories has been collected and sent to recyclers.

Serge Ferrari

In 2008; the original patent was lodged in 1998. Texyloop® is a patented technology for the recycling of flexible composite materials (polyester base cloth and PVC coating only). This technology is derived from the VinyLoop patent allowing the separation (in a reliable and clean way) of the polyester fibers from the PVC coating to produce new raw materials, which will be used in different industrial chains. But we all know that there is a world of difference between a patent on paper and an operational factory. So we can say that it took us approximately 10 years from a laboratory pilot, through technology pilot, to a full-scale factory.

Unifi Inc.
Unifi has been committed to recycling for many years, which led to the development of the REPREVE® brand fiber. Unifi commercialized the product in 2007.

How has your program progressed?

While we have had some customers participate, most of the progress of our program has been internal. By giving the program a name—FabRecycle™—and posting signs on collection bins and baling machines, we’ve raised awareness among our associates. That has resulted in reducing the amount of recyclable material going to landfills. Since 2008, we’ve averaged about 50,000 pounds per year of 100 percent polyester scrap and returned fabric being recycled.


Glen Raven
In the late ’90s, our Sunbrella® yarn plants earned the Certificate of Merit in Pollution Prevention from the state of North Carolina. Our manufacturing plants earned the E3 Award from the American Textile Manufacturers Institute for successful environmental programs and improvements, including 100 percent recycling of all industrial textile and packaging waste.

In 2008, the executive office building staff began sharing an annual report with employees on its recycling efforts that has resulted in 20,000 pounds of paper and materials being collected each year. Also in 2008, our Anderson, S.C., plant became landfill-free, after further reductions in waste generation and development of new partnerships with recyclers, so that absolutely nothing from that site goes into the trash.

Serge Ferrari
In parallel to working on the recycling plant at Ferrara, Italy, we had to build a collection network across Europe that we started from scratch. Today 100 companies among our customers have signed the Texyloop Chart and ship back to us on a regular basis some composite material to be recycled (either factory scraps or end-of-life material). Those companies are located in six different countries across Europe: France, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Spain and Belgium.

We also are very proud to count one U.S.-based customer, Rubb USA, that provides custom solutions for aircraft hangars, sport facilities and industrial buildings. Rubb USA is very proactive in the field of sustainable solutions; its buildings are by nature lightweight and relocatable, and, with the 30-year experience of its team, it illustrates the principle of maximizing functional intensity while reducing material intensity.

In 2004, Unifi began developing proprietary processes and techniques to recycle its own waste and convert it into a first-quality product, REPREVE. Unifi started with a single product offering (REPREVE hybrid) and now offers more than 12 different product options. Based on rapid volume growth, in May 2011, the company built the REPREVE Recycling Center, a custom, state-of-the-art recycling facility. Using the latest recycling technology gives Unifi the flexibility to expand in new and innovative directions, including increasing capacity to manufacture REPREVE recycled fiber from more recyclable materials—plastic bottles, fiber waste, and even fabrics that have reached their end of life.

Until now, millions of pounds of textile waste have typically been down-cycled or put into the landfill. In typical garment manufacturing, 8 to 15 percent of all fabric produced becomes cutting waste. At the REPREVE Recycling Center, Unifi has developed the technology to recycle these fabric scraps—a significant move for the industry. Now, it’s possible to reclaim fabrics from REPREVE customers and recycle them back into REPREVE Takeback fiber. The Textile Takeback Program recycles supply chain waste and post-consumer fabrics that have reached their end of life.

How has the reality of your recycling program compared with what you anticipated when you started it?

We had hoped for more participation on the part of customers but the reality is that it can be expensive, logistically challenging and environmentally unfriendly to return relatively small quantities of fabric for recycling. A more eco-friendly option for smaller quantities is to find a way to recycle near the point where the fabric is used. Where we’ve had success with customer participation has been with larger volume printers and users of fabrics.

Serge Ferrari
Once the technical challenges were solved, we had to overcome the mentalities and standard habits. It takes some time and organization to get the message across.

The REPREVE brand has expanded beyond our original expectations. This growth and evolution solidifies Unifi’s commitment to the production of sustainable fibers.

What has been the industry response to the program and the products made from recycled textiles?

I think that whether they are able to participate or not, our customers appreciate the fact that we have the program in place and that as a company we are concerned about our impact on the environment. In addition to the FabRecycle program that focuses on what to do with fabric after use, we offer our customers several different styles of 100 percent post-consumer, recycled polyester fabric as part of our open line, and these are among our best sellers.  So, even if recycling after use isn’t feasible, our customers and their clients have eco-friendly options available.

Glen Raven
We launched the “Recycle My Sunbrella” take-back program, which invites all of our customers, as well as consumers, to participate by returning their fabrics for recycling into new industrial products, such as filtration or padding materials. This program has steadily grown over the years: more than 60 individuals and companies have made contributions, which now total more than 100,000 pounds. Most of the contributions come from the southeastern U.S. region, since shipping costs play a part in the feasibility of the program. We are very pleased with the increasing interest levels from the markets

Glen Raven developed in 2010 the “Renaissance” family of Sunbrella fabrics that contains 50 percent post-industrial recycled fiber content. The recycled fibers are collected from our Anderson, S.C., plant and then sent to partner companies for fiber recovery and spinning into new, high-quality yarns. The Heritage collection of recycled-content upholstery fabrics has received awards at market trade shows, and is drawing a lot of attention from buyers.

The industry response has been amazing!  REPREVE has been adopted by some of the world’s leading brands and retailers, including Patagonia, The North Face, Polartec, BlueAvocado, Haggar and Ford.

Dara Syrkin is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis, Minn.

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