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Recycle, upcycle

September 1st, 2014 / By: / Sustainability

Commercial interior fabrics routinely take on a second life.

Does it pay to be green? Yes, it may cost more to initiate the practice when it comes to manufacturing recyclable fabrics for use in commercial interiors—just as with most innovative initiatives—but down the road, it can pay off nicely. Plus, those not on the bandwagon may be missing out on business opportunities, as the practice of reusing materials in this industry segues from optional to mandatory table stakes. Customers have come to expect this feature as a given. And when the materials can be recycled at a higher value—called upcycling—they can serve as a new profit center.

Standards of certification

Cradle to Cradle (C2C) is the win-win concept developed by architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC) of Charlottesville, Va. Through C2C, input becomes output. Picture it as a continuous loop into which materials are perpetually circulated, which maximizes monetary returns while sparing the ecosystem. It prods the textile industry to find ways to reuse fabric products, address dyes and auxiliaries, and look at the fiber itself. And it’s driven by architects and interior designers who use these fabrics—a forward audience eager to incorporate sustainability into their designs and use their purchasing power to influence fabricators, while gaining those sought-after LEED sustainability credits they need.

MBDC has developed standards of certification that manufacturers can apply. Its nonprofit organization, Green-Blue, has formed a partnership with the Association for Contract Textiles and NSF International to develop standards for certifying sustainable textiles used commercially. Its principles instruct, “Use wisely; eliminate toxicity; and recover more.” Unlike single-attribute eco-labels, the Cradle to Cradle CertifiedCM product standard takes a comprehensive approach to evaluating the design of a product and the practices employed in manufacturing the product.

The materials and manufacturing processes of each product are assessed in five categories:

  • Material Health: Product ingredients are inventoried throughout the supply chain and evaluated for impact on human and ecological health. The criteria at each level build toward the expectation of eliminating all toxic and unidentified chemicals and becoming nutrients for safe, continuous cycling.
  • Material Reutilization: Products are designed to either biodegrade safely as a biological nutrient or to be recycled into new products as a technical nutrient. At each level, continued progress must be made toward increasing the recovery of materials and keeping them in continuous flow.
  • Renewable Energy & Carbon Management: The criteria at each level build toward the expectation of carbon neutrality and powering all operations with 100 percent renewable energy.
  • Water Stewardship: Processes are designed to regard water as a precious resource for all living things, and at each level progress is made toward the expectation of all effluent being clean enough to drink.
  • Social Fairness: Company operations are designed to celebrate all people and natural systems, and progress is made toward having a wholly beneficial impact on the planet.

What’s old is new again

True Textiles Inc. of Grand Rapids, Mich., is another satisfied C2C player, says marketing director Gregg VanderKooi. “We were pioneers in the textile industry’s environmental movement well before it was in vogue. It wasn’t done to keep up with the competition or as a marketing ploy; we did it because it was the right thing to do. Through our Terratex® development protocol, which originated in 1995, it has become the culture of our organization to educate everybody about sustainability.”

For over 10 years, the company has been developing its ReSKU program, which reclaims fabrics and turns them into raw materials for new products. Going beyond the basic expectations of simply recycling, it upcycles to create products with greater value. “Rather than staring at a pile of waste and wondering what to do with it, we first identify high-value product opportunities for waste,” says VanderKooi. “That process greatly increases the incentive to do so—for instance, using it to create cushions that replace polyurethane foam.”

True Textiles also has saved money by using ideas generated by its employees, such as “chipping” cardboard yarn cones in order to burn them rather than throwing them away. Not only does this save them from landfill, the process also captures steam heat to harness. Another employee suggested ways to reschedule trucks, which resulted in a savings of $2,400 a month.

Marco Alvarez, president of Fabric Images Inc., a worldwide fabric architecture firm based in Elgin, Ill., is a believer in recycling, too. “Our corporate goal is to recycle 80 percent of the waste we create; we look for materials we can use again or dispose of sustainably, such as polyester. We send it to a mill, which will shred it, melt it and convert it back. And we treat the aluminum frames like LEGOs, converting, say, an 8-by-10-foot rod into a 2-by-8.”

Fabric Images’ Freestyle program, launched in 2008, encourages clients to rent the special showpiece the company has created for a one-time interior display, and then return it for reuse—or, as Alvarez puts it, “to maintain a brand experience while reducing environmental impact.” Clients don’t have to deal with storage issues and are free to create a brand new eye-catcher the next time around, while Fabric Images repurposes the material—a win-win solution. Recyclables include fabric, metal and paper products.

Customer demand

Architects—visionaries that they are—often lead the demand for going green. “It’s very much on their horizon,” says Jim Miller, president of J. Miller Canvas Inc. in Santa Ana, Calif.

“Architects get LEED points based on that, so they look for points everywhere they can,” says Jim Smart of design firm Smart Associates in Minneapolis, Minn., “At least 80 to 90 percent of our clients demand sustainability. The material needs to be recyclable and not create waste.”

True Textile’s VanderKooi says, “We can also offer them materials that reduce energy consumption, such as very large, tensile-structured tents inside a building. Those tents are designed to keep the A/C closer to where people actually work, not the wide, outer space. It’s a good way to save money when you can’t air-condition a whole building; it keeps the A/C to the center and down low.”

Sustainability is the bottom line at Cleveland, Ohio-based fabricator 4walls, too. “We must absolutely assure that a product is sustainable: no PVC, and use of environmental-friendly latex ink in printing,” says president Patrick Walker. “We’re in the process of becoming certified by SGP (Society of Green Printers) and engaging in recycling programs. For instance, some manufacturers accept materials back. We also donate them to local arts organizations for upcycling, such as when the used vinyl becomes an art project.”

Carla Waldemar is a writer and editor
based in Minneapolis, Minn.

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