Accelerating Circularity

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70 years ago, when polyester fibers were first being produced, nobody gave much thought to the end of life of a garment. Back then, clothes were washed less frequently as automated washing machines were still a rarity in homes, and everyone sewed their clothes when they needed repairing, rather than discarding them.

Fast forward to 2021, COVID-19 has upended the world, resulting in a massive number of deaths and creating economic havoc in many countries. It has also resulted in more consumers thinking about the environment and sustainability.

That includes the need to accelerate circularity by turning waste into a resource, and Unifi is proud to play a role.

“Unifi is a textile solutions provider and synthetic yarn producer,” said Unifi CEO Eddie Ingle. “We produce fiber waste in the production of synthetic polyester yarns.  Our journey to become a sustainable company began back in the mid-2000s when we set about to reduce the amount of waste going to the landfill by figuring out how to recycle our own waste.”

In 2007, Unifi’s recycled yarn brand, REPREVE, was commercialized and the company hasn’t looked back.  It was the first company to make continuous filament recycled polyester yarn commercially available in the U.S. on a large scale that replicated the performance of virgin materials.

In addition to recycling its own waste, Unifi has recycled more than 20 billion bottles and transformed them into REPREVE performance fiber.  Its current goal is to recycle 30 billion bottles in 2022 and it is well on its way to reaching that target.

“When it comes to sustainability, we are always stretching to do more, and we are now focused on helping to accelerate circularity,” Ingle added. “In a circular economy, garments and home furnishings are made of reclaimed components, and after a product is discarded, the materials and parts are reused, repaired or recycled.”

Unifi has been a pioneer of circular textile takeback programs for the last 10 years and has plans to further increase its efforts. Simply put, this is where textiles go back into textiles.

The company partnered with the Pac-12 to help collect bottles on the University of Washington campus that were used to make REPREVE, which Oak Hall used to produce graduation caps and gowns. Each gown contained 23 recycled plastic bottles and could be recycled back into new gowns.

At the 2019 super bowl, Unifi worked with Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Mercedes-Benz Stadium and Georgia Aquarium to support a circular economy by collecting plastic bottles during Super Bowl week. These bottles were then transformed into REPREVE recycled fiber for use in athletic and fashion apparel.

The emergence of Fast fashion has drawn increased attention to the amount of textile waste around the globe.  A report published by Accelerating Circularity estimates that Americans discard 81 lbs. of clothing/year, with only 15% of that being donated or recycled.

“From a consumer perspective, keeping items longer and donating or recycling to give garments a second life is the next step,” Ingle said.  “Major brands are already designing with a second life in mind, beginning with the use of sustainable fibers in their designs and encouraging consumers to donate, repair, reuse or seek out other circular economy solutions.”

Novel technology will be essential to deliver a first quality recycled product that meets the rigorous demands of both processing into a finished article and usage by the consumer. Brands and suppliers will work together to design for circularity—creating articles that are more compatible with recycling technology and requiring less disassembly and sortation.  Unifi’s teams are currently researching how to breakthrough on the biggest challenges facing circular supply chains for the textile industry: mixed materials, contamination, filtration requirements, colored components and scalability.  The company is well on its way, with more than a decade of recycling experience and energized for the future generation of recycling technology.

Unifi attracts the very best, most committed, purposeful people because of its stainable business.  The company has embraced the mantra that its people have the potential to make a profound difference in the world through what they’re doing. There are so many resources that are considered waste right now that can be used as resources, and Unifi is there to help make that transformation—all for the good of tomorrow.

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