onsumer awareness of the importance of environmental stewardship has led to increased
demand for products manufactured with minimal impact on the world’s well-being. And the demand for
textiles that have a “green” pedigree has grown even in the face of economic hardships endured
recently by many consumers. The environmental benefits gained from using recycled raw materials
rather than virgin materials to make these products are many — including conservation of natural
resources as well as reduced energy consumption, carbon dioxide (CO2) and other emissions, and
waste going to landfills. Some of these products may command higher prices than their traditional
counterparts, partly because the practice of recycling has not been fully adopted by consumers, so
supply of recycled materials is limited. However, these products also tend to be made using
cleaner, more efficient processes.
“There’s been a fundamental change in our culture when it comes to recycling and
sustainability,” remarked William L. Jasper, president and CEO of United States-based Unifi Inc.,
manufacturer of Repreve® recycled fibers and yarns. “The younger generation thinks about it
differently than the older generation. It’s really much more important now, and it’s going to
continue to be. People are starting to recognize there’s only so much landfill space and only so
Post-industrial (PI) recycling has been practiced for years, and the first recycled-content
textile products contained primarily or exclusively PI materials, which would include trimmings
left on the cutting room floor in apparel and other textile product manufacturing facilities.
In recent years, post-consumer (PC) content has increased as more and more consumer
recycling programs have been established in communities across the United States and in other
countries worldwide. In the man-made fiber arena, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) packaging and
discarded carpet are the major raw material sources for recycled-content fiber products, but there
are also programs to take back clothing, such as United States-based outdoor apparel retailer
Patagonia Inc.’s Common Threads Recycling Program. And cotton products, such as T-shirts and denim
jeans, and other natural-fiber-based textiles also can be recycled into new generations of
Teijin’s ECO CIRCLE® closed-loop recycling system converts worn-out polyester garments
collected through Patagonia’s Common Threads Recycling Program and other programs into new
Unifi debuted Repreve in December 2000 at Expofil Paris as a textured polyester filament
yarn made with post-industrial content, but it wasn’t until mid-2006 that the company began
actively marketing the new product. By then, PC content from PET bottles was also part of Repreve’s
raw material content, and it began to appear in Polartec® and other fabrics. Subsequently, Unifi
began to offer versions of the yarn with 100-percent PC content, and it also introduced Repreve
polyester staple fiber and a nylon version of the yarn that has post-industrial content. Today,
Repreve has achieved considerable success and is featured in a wide range of products, from
performancewear, sportswear and professional apparel to upholstery and home furnishing textiles,
and also has applications in automotive fabrics.
Discarded PET bottles can be recycled into chip to be made into virgin-quality polyester
fiber such as Unifi’s Repreve®.
Unifi is in the process of backward integrating the Repreve production chain. “Not only are
we going to be taking our own waste and recycling it back into fiber in-house, but we’re also going
to put in the capability to turn PET bottle flake into chip that can be fed into our spinning
facility to make yarn,” Jasper said.
Unifi also plans to collect waste fabric from its customers to recycle back into yarn. “In
cut-and-sew operations, about 15-percent of the fabric ends up on the cutting room floor,” Jasper
said, adding, “Ultimately, we’ll be able to take garments and recycle them too.”
Recycled PET (RPET) textile products are offered by other manufacturers as well, including,
among many others, Japan-based Teijin Group’s ECO CIRCLE® and ECOPET® fibers, and RPET fibers
generated by newly established Clear Path Recycling LLC, United States — a joint venture between
carpet manufacturer Shaw Industries Group Inc. and polyester staple fiber (PSF) producer DAK
Eco Circle, reportedly the world’s first closed-loop recycling system for polyester
products, is fed by worn-out polyester clothing from apparel and uniform manufacturers and
retailers, as well as government agencies, hospitals and clinics, schools, sports clubs, and other
entities. The system can recycle 10,000 metric tons of polyester fiber annually, with
84-percent-lower energy consumption and 77-percent-fewer CO2 emissions compared to equivalent
production of virgin polyester.
Patagonia is both a supplier and an end-user in the Eco Circle program. It supplies
discarded polyester apparel products collected through its Common Threads program — under which it
accepts its Capilene® Performance Baselayers, Patagonia® fleece and Polartec fleece apparel from
any manufacturer; as well as Patagonia cotton T-shirts, and certain polyester and nylon 6 articles
that carry the Common Threads tag. And some of its product offerings contain RPET supplied either
by Teijin or by Unifi.
This Patagonia fleece vest, made with Unifi’s Repreve
® recycled polyester, can itself be recycled via Teijin’s ECO CIRCLE® recycling system
into new fiber that can be reused in a new Patagonia garment.
Patagonia has recycled 27 tons of used clothing since it initiated the program in 2005. It
expects to reach its goal of making all of its clothing recyclable by fall 2011.
Nylon 6 and 6,6
With several billion pounds of carpet discarded annually in the United States alone,
recycling and other carpet recovery efforts can divert an enormous volume of waste from a landfill
grave. Most of the recycled carpet contains nylon 6 or nylon 6,6 face yarns, and here
Textile World Asia
presents technologies available to recycle these two types of nylon back into new carpet
Shaw’s Evergreen Nylon Recycling facility in Augusta, Ga., receives PC nylon 6 carpet
collected by Shaw through its nationwide collection network. The Evergreen process separates the
nylon 6 carpet fiber from the rest of the carpet and depolymerizes it back into its original,
colorless monomer — caprolactam, which then is repolymerized into new nylon 6 that is
indistinguishable from nylon 6 derived from virgin resources. The polymer can be recycled over and
over in a closed-loop system with no degradation of performance or aesthetics. Shaw blends the
recycled polymer with virgin nylon 6 to make new carpet fibers including Eco Solution Q® for its
commercial carpet products and Anso® for its residential carpet. Both products have received Cradle
to Cradle® Silver certification, and Anso has been certified by Scientific Certification Systems to
have 25-percent PC content supplied by Evergreen.
Shaw’s Eco Solution Q® carpet fiber containing recycled nylon 6 fiber is used in commercial
carpet tile that also features its EcoWorx® polyolefin thermoplastic backing.
Nylon 6,6 has been difficult to recycle successfully into new high-quality carpet yarn, as
no current commercial depolymerization or decoloring technologies are currently available. However,
as part of its EarthSmart® platform, Universal Fibers — a United States-based solution-dyed carpet
fiber manufacturer — has developed technology that cleans used nylon 6,6 carpet fiber or fluff and
combines it with virgin nylon 6,6. EarthSmart’s refresh fiber® contains PC nylon 6,6 recycled from
discarded carpet, and it is offered in a broad range of colors. The company has a proprietary
collaborative relationship with Unites States-based carpet manufacturer Interface Inc., which
collects used nylon 6,6 carpet, along with carpet containing other man-made fibers, through its
ReEntry® 2.0 program. Interface shaves off the fluff, batches similar colors together and sends it
to Universal Fibers, which cleans and reprocesses it into pellets. These are combined with virgin
nylon 6,6 polymer or chip, color concentrate is added, and new fiber is produced. Interface’s
modular carpet tile business, InterfaceFLOR, has introduced tiles with PC recycled nylon 6,6
content in a wide range of styles and colors under its Convert™ platform.
“There are challenges associated with introducing reclaimed fluff with virgin nylon 6,6
polymer or chip,” said Joe Parry, global marketing and brand manager, Universal Fibers. “There is a
very complex dynamic that must be considered in successfully achieving the high standards of color
consistency, stain resistance and wear performance. Our first challenge is cleaning the fluff of
nearly all contaminants. We’ve been able to achieve this in a way that’s energy-efficient and
green, and in a cost-effective way that the market will still support.”
Interface, which offers various carpet products containing nylon 6,6, nylon 6 or polyester,
has been steadily increasing the recycled content of its products. In 2009, by volume, 18 percent
of its yarns, 33 percent of its substrates and 39 percent of its backings, as well as 46 percent of
its packaging, were recycled material. According to Erin Meezan, vice president, sustainability,
the company expects recycled content to increase to more than 40 percent overall in the next two
Interface uses the instrument shown here to identify nylon 6 and nylon 6,6 in carpet collected
through its ReEntry® 2.0 recycling program.
Recycled, or regenerated, cotton is finding its way into new yarns and nonwoven products.
Circle LLC, United States, has patented several PI waste-conversion technologies, among them twist™
for production of high-quality long-staple apparel yarn; altfab™ for medium-staple nonwoven
applications such as baby wipe, cleaning, cosmetic, industrial, medical and personal care products;
and flip™ for short-staple wetlaid products and paper production; as well as three other
technologies. According to Matt Kelly, Circle’s director of business development, the technologies
enable higher-quality production than traditional fiber recycling processes.
“For cotton, you must protect the staple length when recycling. Traditional recycling is
about chopping up, which reduces staple length, and recycled cotton hasn’t really broken through in
the consumer market because it’s been considered too low-quality,” Kelly said. “The Circle
regeneration technology treats fabric waste very differently. Our patented technologies handle the
fibers and take them through the processing route very gently, so at the end, the fibers have a
staple length that can be equivalent to virgin cotton. Then you can put the staple fiber back into
high-quality fabrics or nonwovens in which it can be blended with any kind of fiber, and there’s no
difference in performance or feel.”
Circle processes only PI materials that have traceable components. “Our outlets are consumer
products, so we have to know the fiber composition and what chemicals and dyestuffs have been
used,” Kelly explained. He added that regenerated cotton comes at a lower cost than virgin cotton,
providing an advantage for Circle’s customers — which include a number of top retailers —
especially as raw cotton prices have soared in recent months.
Circle’s twist™ technology converts garment waste into long-staple fiber for reuse in
high-quality apparel yarn.
While Circle developed the technologies to regenerate the fibers, manages the collection and
distribution of the raw materials and for the most part directly handles the product contracts for
the downstream customers, the regenerated fibers are further processed by other manufacturing
entities within an umbrella group called the Sustainable Solutions Network™.
The company now is preparing to expand globally. “We’ve been working very intensely over the
last two years to take our technologies to the global arena and focus them where the waste is
generated,” Kelly said. “We still believe in U.S. manufacturing, but there’s very little garment
waste here — it’s all gone offshore, and we’ve been spending a lot of time and effort in
coordinating container shipments of waste from Asia. We’re now at the stage of expanding in the
next year into Europe, India and China. Several manufacturers there are looking to become
closed-loop and use waste as a quality raw material.”