Made In America

A Salute to Sustainability

WM and Unifi have transformed over 20B plastic bottles into products.

The uniform market is underserved when it comes to sustainability and circular economy,” states Amelia Eleiter, Debrand co-founder, who points out the importance of the uniform supply industry. “Last year it was a $32B industry so it has an impact in terms of the volume of materials it puts into the marketplace; 1.8B units per year are put into circulation — that’s a lot!,” says Eleiter. “Given the nature of the materials used, this industry is ripe for circularity.”

Eleiter’s comments were made during a National Association of Uniform Manufacturers and Distributors (NAUMD) webinar that aired earlier this year titled, “The Sprint Towards Circularity.” The session focused on new technologies that are helping to advance transparency, value recovery, security and circularity through the supply chain. Debrand has provided airlines, courier services, financial institutions, and governments responsible and transparent uniform recycling solutions. The webinar provided a sneak peek at Debrand’s new Allocation Engine software platform and also highlighted digital technologies from EON. EON is the first platform to connect products from new to re-new, and pioneered industry’s CircularID Protocol to facilitate data-exchange across the circular economy.

Waste Management’s Raymond Randall, managing principal, corporate development & Innovation, joined the conversation, saying, “This is a really interesting space for Waste Management (WM), where we can leverage trends and technology with a huge opportunity to shift and address our goal of highest/best use for materials.” WM has 25M+ customers and has the ability to collect more materials and move more materials to get to their highest uses. During its annual Sustainability Forum WM announced plans to invest another $100 million in recycling collection and processing infrastructure – the fourth year in a row.

Randall mentions that while glass is infinitely recyclable a market doesn’t exist for glass.  

“That is why we are exploring textiles and see opportunities working with Debrand and EON to transition processes from manual to digital for efficiency and scale. By having the ability to digitally scan material coming through the facility and instantaneously determine what the best end market is is really exciting. Eliminating manual error and minimizing the time factor will usher in a more efficient process.”

Unifi is very involved with Waste Management, both in their uniforms and recycling efforts. For instance, together WM and Unifi have transformed over 20B bottles into product. “Waste Management is a key player in the industry and their system and their sortation capability is some of the best in the world,” states Unifi’s Jay Hertwig, Senior VP Commercialization.

“This is a really interesting space for Waste Management (WM), where we can leverage trends and technology with a huge opportunity to shift and address our goal of highest/best use for materials.” — Raymond Randall, managing principal, corporate development & innovation, Waste Management (WM)

Unifi has been aligned with WM as a customer for over five years, since the Repreve Bottle Processing Center opened in 2017. How it works is that WM picks up consumer recycling and delivers it to a WM Materials Recovery Facility for sortation. There, plastic is separated from cardboard and from aluminum and other materials. Each type of material is packed into bails and shipped to various facilities to turn into something new. Bottles go to Unifi’s Repreve Process Facility in NC to be turned into Repreve recycled polyester.

In 2019, in collaboration with Unifi, WM collected bottles at its golf tournament to be recycled into materials; WM team member uniforms featuring Unifi’s Repreve fabric were made from recycled plastic bottles, including those collected at tournament.

Garments with Repreve have been made available to more than 20,000 drivers, helpers and post-collection WM employees. A line of shirts using the material has also been offered to management.

“The best thing Unifi can do is help WM create awareness around what can happen to plastic bottles and to help educate consumers about recycling,” states Hertwig, who explains that, in the U.S. the recycling rate is less than 30 percent. “The belief is that as recycling infrastructure increases we will be able to capture and convert more material into eco-friendly, sustainable textile yarn and fiber.”

Hertwig adds, “The outlook for recycling looks strong, but there’s a lot of other work that has to be done as far as a second, third, or fourth life for product in a true circular economy that we are pushing for and is continuing to evolve.”