Textile waste is gaining new life through closed-loop processes, creating more products (and some profits) in more industries.
Forty-five years ago, Kermit (the frog) lamented, “It’s not easy bein’ green.” Environmentally speaking, it still may not be easy, but it’s becoming less difficult every day—and more profitable.
“We introduced a recycled fabric prototype 15 years ago and no one would touch it,” says John Gant, director of research and development for Glen Raven Custom Fabrics LLC of Glen Raven, N.C. “Today, this feature is especially important to the upholstery markets.”
“As technology advances, more possibilities open up for reutilizing materials,” says Deidre Hoguet, director of sustainability and material exploration for Designtex, the fabric-manufacturing subsidiary of the Steelcase office furniture company. “The culture and demand for more sustainable solutions pressure industries to produce new technologies and more sustainable systems of production. Another important factor is that around the year 2000 the cost of commodity raw materials began rising. The pressure of rising costs means that recycling and reutilization of materials is becoming a profitable path, in addition to being the right thing to do.”
In 2012, Designtex began using yarn produced from recycled fabric waste it had accumulated. “At the time, we were not sure if we would be successful in making a first-quality yarn,” Hoguet says. But it was possible, and that yarn was used in the first product the company made in a closed-loop process, called Loop to Loop, launched collaboratively in 2013 by Designtex of New York City, N.Y.; Unifi Inc. of Greensboro, N.C.; Victor Group Inc. of St. Georges, Quebec, Canada; and Steelcase of Grand Rapids, Mich.
“Since that time, we have discussed expanding the collection of materials to include more waste,” Hoguet adds. “Last year Designtex launched a second fabric called Hyphen, and Steelcase’s Surface Materials team launched two upholstery fabrics called Redeem and Retrieve. They all utilize the waste yarn created from the recycling process established by the four companies.”
At the NeoCon show in Chicago this past June, Designtex showcased four new styles in the Loop to Loop system.
Turnover is good
Unifi, which produces yarns with enhanced performance characteristics, is expanding waste collection efforts and incorporating more of its Repreve® Textile Takeback Yarns (recycled fabric waste) into various styles and product offerings.
“We believe there’s a cultural trend toward more sustainable products as people begin to understand the effect we can have on our environment,” says Jay Hertwig, vice president of global brand sales, marketing and product development. “Products made with Repreve have the same quality, comfort and performance capabilities as products made with nonrecycled polyester fibers. Unifi continues to expand its raw material stocks, recycling capabilities and capacity for recycling textiles and plastics to meet and grow consumer demand for sustainable products.”
Based on the current and projected increase in demand for environmentally responsible products, Unifi broke ground in July on a $10 million addition to its Repreve Recycling Center, which opened in 2011 in Yadkinville, N.C.
“We have always had the environment as part of our product development,” says Martin Bourque, director of strategic product development for Victor Group. But when the company closed the loop on manufacturing 100 percent polyester 10 to 15 years ago, “the technology was not there,” he says. “In 2009, people turned more toward the dollar sign than being green. So we kept our effort, but offered standard products at the same time. People are going back toward green products. The work we did 10 to 15 years ago makes it easier for us.”
Glen Raven’s Anderson, S.C., plant has recycled all textile waste for many decades and has “terrific partners who reprocess it into usable fiber,” Gant says. “Our first step was to consider how our customers and even homeowners could also utilize this recycling stream.” That connection was accomplished through a partnership with South Carolina Vocational Rehabilitation, which receives and sorts fabric scraps to be converted into fiber. “That conversion has been done for decades by Leigh Fibers Inc. [of Wellford, S.C.],” Gant says. “After that, we work with others to convert it back into high-quality yarn.”
In the past, Glen Raven’s recycled fibers went into industrial filtration and felted products. “For the past few years, we’ve captured the best-quality fibers and directed our recycler to send them to a yarn spinner, who then ships that yarn to us for weaving into new fabric,” Gant says.
Martex Fiber has recycled more than 1 billion pounds of textile waste in the last 10 years. The Charlotte, N.C.-based company operates collection centers in South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Texas, Nicaragua and Honduras. Most of the material collected in Central America is shipped to the company’s U.S. manufacturing locations, with the balance repurposed into applications throughout the world.
“We have contracts with many of the world’s most well-known textile and apparel brands,” says Jimmy Jarrett, president and co-founder. “Our process is completely closed loop. We guarantee that all the waste we collect gets recycled through our manufacturing process or repurposed through one of the many markets we have developed over the years. We even recycle all of our own manufacturing waste, as we have developed markets for those materials as well. In addition, we have customers that provide us their textile waste, which we refiberize and spin into recycled yarn that they use for a different product segment in their business.
“We evaluate the various streams of waste we collect and formulate ideas of where we could insert our recycled fibers or yarns and provide an advantage to our customers or a specific market segment,” Jarrett adds. “Markets we serve range from acoustic pads in a car to home insulation. In our recycled yarn division called Jimtex Yarns, we are large suppliers for apparel and furniture upholstery, our fastest-growing segment.”
At Designtex, the market for sustainable products has increased across the board. “Overall, the conversation is much richer, as there is a better understanding that sustainability is not any one factor, but a system of interlocking impacts and factors,” Hoguet says. “For example, there is now a broader understanding of terms like lifecycle impacts that was not widely understood a decade ago. But there still is a lot of education needed.”
“While sustainability is a recent industry trend, Leigh Fibers has been in the business [of recycling fiber] for almost 100 years,” says Paul Lehner, chief technology officer. “In the past few years, we have refocused our product development efforts at end uses and industries where the use of repurposed and recycled content is valued.
“There are segments within the overall market that will pay a premium for sustainable products. They understand that the collection and processing of recycled material can be expensive,” he continues. “There also are corporations that have mandates on purchasing sustainable products and moving to landfill-free processes. Customers have asked us to assist them in using their waste in our products and, to some degree, in their internal processes.”
In June 2014, Leigh Fibers acquired ICE Recycling in Lake City, S.C., to help secure raw material. In addition to recycling post-industrial waste, the company works with insurance and salvage companies to reprocess materials damaged by fire, water, transportation and weather-related incidents. The largest single segment for the company’s reprocessed fiber is the automotive market, with furniture coming in second.
Victor Group also gets inquiries from companies—especially office furniture manufacturers dealing with government regulations and LEED standards—wanting to be part of a collaborative initiative like the one it has with Designtex, Unifi and Steelcase.
“We cannot produce the same model for everyone, but we have discussions with them,” Bourque says. “We are open to working with other companies if they participate with us in the whole concept.”
“The most significant change in the market for sustainable products is the extent to which it has grown to encompass a variety of industries,” Hertwig says. “The outdoor market especially has a focus on the environment and was the first to promote products made with eco-friendly materials. Brands such as Quiksilver® and Polartec® use Repreve to help reduce their environmental impact while still providing products that are high quality and functional.”
“We’ve changed the way we engage our customers over the past few years,” Hertwig says. “We hope that our changes inspire others throughout the supply chain. Through our #TurnItGreen initiative, Unifi has been raising awareness about Repreve and the importance of recycling and choosing products made with recycled materials. We are giving ownership to our consumers, customers and brands in the production and purchase of sustainable products.”
For more than 25 years, Glen Raven has recycled its Sunbrella® acrylic manufacturing waste and delivered it to recyclers that converted it into industrial products such as felt, automotive insulation and filtration. Five years ago, the company launched its Recycle My Sunbrella program to provide customers—businesses and homeowners alike—a path to participate in the process. Some of the waste is even used to create novelty yarns in decorative Sunbrella fabrics.
“A couple of manufacturers and distributors have demonstrated the largest commitment, and we also see regular contributions from some small workshops around the country,” Gant says. “We do our best to share our values, our efforts that are tangible to each type of customer, and include sustainability messaging as part of the Sunbrella brand.”
One of the largest categories of items collected by Martex is knitted textile waste from apparel manufacturers.
“We have had some success in this area of the market, in part because we are able to recycle all of the waste streams from a typical cut-and-sew operation,” Jarrett says. “This is a challenging process, but we have developed markets and product capabilities for the materials over the years that allow us to recycle a vast array of textile waste.
“Whether it is on the industrial side or the retail side, companies are always looking for more sustainable, cost-effective solutions,” he adds. “Part of our challenge is continuing to get our products in front of as many brands as possible. Even though we have been in business for 40 years, the products we develop from recycled materials are constantly evolving. The innovation part of our business is very exciting.
“Sustainability is not a ‘sometimes activity’; it needs to be an everyday activity,” Jarrett asserts. “If companies really study their supply chain in terms of types of materials used, packaging and repurposing their manufacturing waste, they can achieve sustainability and cost savings.”
Gant sums it up: “I believe the trend toward sustainable products is initially driven by the evolution of values and capabilities in our society, and then by continuous progress over years, decades, and even centuries.”
Janice Kleinschmidt is a writer and editor based in San Diego, Calif.