Weaving a sustainability story

Features - Product Pull-Through

Unifi’s Repreve yarn is made from 100-percent-recycled materials.

October 8, 2018

Fiber manufacturer Unifi Inc., Greensboro, North Carolina, introduced Repreve-branded yarns in 2007. Today, Repreve is a brand of fibers, chip and flake made from 100-percent- recycled materials, using scrap that includes polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles. Initially, the fiber was used in fleece, Unifi says, but it has since been used in other applications and can be found in accessories, apparel, automotive upholstery and home furnishings.

Since its introduction, Unifi says Repreve fabric has been embraced by brands that include Ford, Target, Levi’s, Lane Bryant, Patagonia and Haggar.

“To date, Unifi is proud to have partnered with the world’s leading brands to transform more than 12.5 billion plastic bottles into Repreve and is on track to recycle 20 billion bottles by 2020 and 30 billion by 2022,” says Charlie Schwarze, global director of Unifi’s Repreve recycled business.

Unifi produces a number of fibers under the Repreve name, including poly fiber and yarn, filament yarn and staple fiber, which are made from a hybrid of post- and preconsumer material, and nylon yarn that is made from preconsumer nylon material.

“Unifi also holds [a] letter of nonobjection from the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) for both polyester flake and resin, which means Repreve chip and flake is suitable for food packaging,” Schwarze says.

Repreve originated as a way for Unifi to recycle its own fiber scrap, he says. “Unifi spent three-plus years in the development of Repreve so that we could introduce to the market a first-quality recycled polyester that could essentially be a drop-in replacement for standard polyester.”

He continues, “Products made with Repreve are the same quality as products made with nonrecycled polyester—they are just as soft and comfortable and can be made with the same performance additions, such as stretch, moisture management, cross-section technology, water resistance and many more. In addition, Repreve uses 45 percent less energy, 20 percent less water and [achieves] a 30 percent reduction in greenhouse gasses versus virgin polyester production.”

Unifi says it can manufacture up to 100 million pounds of Repreve annually. “Since its beginning,” Schwarze says, “Repreve production has continuously increased both regionally and globally, with several facility expansions and a bottle processing center to achieve vertical integration.”

Vertically integrating

As demand for Repreve grew and brand owners’ sustainability commitments demanded more postconsumer content, Schwarze says Unifi had to look beyond its own polyester scrap as a source of raw material. That’s when the company turned to postconsumer PET bottles.

Unifi opened the Repreve Bottle Processing Center in Reidsville, North Carolina, Sept. 7, 2016. The $28 million-plus investment was designed to help the company achieve its goal of vertical integration for its Repreve recycled product line, adding flexibility, expanding production capabilities and supporting volume growth, the company said at the time of the facility’s opening.

“Vertical integration allowed Unifi to have more control over the process and quality of postconsumer flake input [and] that has allowed Unifi to produce high-quality, value-added products,” Schwarze says.

The 150,000-square-foot Repreve Bottle Processing Center includes a front-end PET purification system, designed, manufactured and installed by Eugene, Oregon-based Bulk Handling Systems (BHS). Unifi’s system features multiple optical separation units to remove non-PET plastics from incoming material.

Unifi purchases baled PET bottles from material recovery facilities (MRFs) across the eastern United States for processing at the Repreve Bottle Processing Center. Undesirable materials are removed using screens and optical sorting to ensure that only quality PET bottles are processed further, the company says. Unifi then removes labels, debris and caps from the remaining PET bottles. These bottles are shredded into flakes, washed, dried and bagged for use in the production of Repreve or sold to other companies for a variety of consumer packaging applications.

Thermoformed PET containers can be present in bottle bales the company receives and can create excessive fines during processing. “Thermoforms are a challenge we address at our Repreve Bottle Processing center to ensure a high-quality product,” Schwarze says.

Stimulating supply

Like other recyclers in the United States, Schwarze says recycled PET bottle supply is constrained because of low recycling rates, creating a more competitive market.

“We see the Repreve brand as one way to develop awareness and excitement about the importance of recycling and increase PET bottle recovery rates,” he says.

Schwarze adds that Unifi feels people will become more engaged in recycling when they realize the potential a recycled bottle holds, whether that’s a new life as a shirt, car part, hat or new bottle.

To raise awareness about recycling, the Repreve brand is active in the Pac-12, a collegiate athletic conference that operates in the western United States, and the Wyndham Championship, a professional golf tournament in North Carolina on the PGA Tour, he adds.

In addition to sourcing bales, Repreve’s procurement team sources recycled flake, postindustrial resin and fiber products from hundreds of suppliers throughout the U.S. As the Repreve brand continues to develop, Schwarze says its teams will continue to try to source more bottles from event venues, cleanup efforts and direct partner relationships.

“We expect the Repreve brand to grow rapidly in the near future as winning brands continue to build sustainability and a closed loop model into their brand DNA,” he says.

Repreve fiber is made from 100-percent-recycled materials.
Image: Repreve

Engaging brand owners

Unifi is not only working to increase its raw material supply but also to increase brand owner demand for its Repreve fibers.

“We constantly work with retailers, brands and converters to prove out the value of high-quality, branded, recycled content in Repreve products,” Schwarze says. “A typical engagement begins with a brand’s sustainability or materials management team and quickly moves to conversations with research and development and procurement teams. We work with a brand’s fabric supplier or polymer converter partner to ensure Repreve works in their process and support the supply chain through product launch.”

Schwarze says Unifi has a full-service marketing team that partners with brands to help communicate Repreve’s sustainability story to consumers. “Co-branding may take the form of bottle counts on a garment’s hang tag, a video showcasing the process or a brand telling the Repreve story on their website.”

To gain the trust of its customers, Unifi offers its own verification program and third-party certifications for Repreve. “We use a unique U Trust program and FiberPrint technology, which means we can verify the products our customers make for recycled content claims through the use of unique tracer technologies,” Schwarze says.

He explains, “Repreve fibers are embedded with a proprietary FiberPrint technology that helps customers avoid false environmental claims through third-party analysis, which verifies the Repreve content claims in a product and in what amount.”

Repreve customers, including mill partners, brands and retailers, can request access to U Trust by visiting https://unifi.com/certify-your-product and meeting at least one of the following criteria:

  • having an invitation from Unifi;
  • being a certified mill partner in Texbase (software for the consumer products industry and its supply chains);
  • having an account in Texbase as a mill partner or brand and having a product to recertify;
  • having a U Trust certification number; or
  • being an approved official mill partner or a brand or retailer that is working with an approved mill partner.

“By combining Repreve with Unifi’s performance technologies,” Schwarze says, “we are able to create apparel that truly performs and gives the wearer peace of mind that they’re making a difference for the planet.

“Repreve resin is a key ingredient for closing the loop with sustainable packaging, staple fiber, nonwovens, film and even recycled PET bottles,” he adds.

The author is editor of Recycling Today and can be contacted at dtoto@gie.net.