Recycling discarded materials into usable other things requires considerable effort and investment, but more companies are doing just that. Take Serge Ferrari North America, a Pompano Beach, Fla.-based manufacturer of flexible composite membranes used globally by numerous markets. In 1996, the company began exploring the idea of recycling its materials for the print and tent markets, since these tended to be briefly used and then discarded, says Elfriede Lynch-Willson. They set about developing the technology that could separate the components of flexible composite material into new, usable raw material. As this was underway, the company began gathering discarded polyester/PVC materials from customers, collecting 80 tons between 2002 and 2003.
By 2005, this had grown to 500 tons. In October 2008—“after a decade of research, testing, collecting and millions of dollars in financial investment,” says, Lynch-Willson—the company opened its Texyloop® recycling plant in Ferrara, Italy.
End-of-life fabrics from a network of participating companies in Europe and the U.S. are collected, sorted, shredded and sent to the plant. There, the materials pass from the reception box to the feed hopper, the entry point of the recycling system, says Lynch-Willson. Next, they go to the selective solution reactor, where the fibers are dissolved, filtered and extracted.
“The solution is then precipitated, allowing the PVC to be separated from the solvent,” says Lynch-Willson. “The solvent is regenerated and reinjected into the recycling process so nothing is wasted.”
Texyloop raw materials end up as membranes for water retention ponds, or as extruded rods for kedars, or as non-woven materials like insulation. A fabric made with recycled polyester fibers was also developed.
Then there’s Unifi, Inc. Headquartered in Greensboro, N.C., the company produces and processes multi-filament polyester and nylon textured yarns and related raw materials. Unifi also manufactures the REPREVE® brand, made of recycled materials such as post-consumer PET1 plastic bottles, turning them into REPREVE fiber used by a variety of leading brands for items like apparel, hosiery, and also automotive and industrial applications.
The discarded plastic bottles arrive to a materials recycling facility where they’re baled and sorted and then sent to the REPREVE Bottle Processing Center, where the bales are broken with a shredder that cuts the wires and separates the bottles. The center, opened in 2016, is equipped with custom-designed, cutting-edge technology, says Jay Hertwig, Unifi’s vice president of global brand sales, marketing and product development.
“Magnets remove the metals, and rolling screens and pneumatic separators remove debris, glass, paper and other non-plastics,” says Hertwig. “After the debris is removed, the bottles are delabeled and washed. Advanced optical and infrared (IR) bottle sorters segregate the bottles by polymer type and color.”
Clear and green bottles become PET flake; everything else is baled for reselling. The clear flake is washed, dried and then sorted one final time before bagging and heading out to the REPREVE Recycling Center, for additional cleaning and reformulating into chips. The chips are then melted and extruded into yarn.
“Within two years of building the REPREVE Recycling Center, Unifi expanded the facility, allowing production to increase to 42 million pounds of REPREVE annually,” says Hertwig. “As of 2015, production reached 72 million pounds annually. We expect to reach 100 million pounds by the end of next year.”