Making Sportswear Circular – A deeper dive into polyester chemical recycling

Intro from Ruth Kelly, Materials Editor

I first meet Matthew Danchuk when he was working as a Material Developer at Tentree, the Vancouver based earth-first apparel brand that encourages environmental stewardship. What impressed me about Matthew was his pragmatic approach to the complex issue of sustainability, coupled with his humble nature and curiosity.

Photo Credit : Matthew Danchuck

We are delighted to have Matthew share his insights with Ssachs in his first article that looks into the latest innovations in recycling polyester, why mechanical recycling is not enough, and how ASICS are knitting in the hopes and dreams of the Japanese public into the national team Tokyo 2020 kits.

Special thanks to the Textile Exchange for resource materials for this article and Joël Mertens from the Sustainable Apparel Coalition for technical feedback.

Plastic. There is a good chance you are likely wearing some plastic right now, especially if you wear sportswear or active lifestyle clothing. Currently, over 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic have been produced, and over 6.3 billion tons have become plastic waste. Virtually every piece of plastic that was ever produced still exists in some form, and we continue to produce 350 million metric tons of plastic annually. While some plastic is recycled, a significant amount of plastic waste is mismanaged, with 11 million metric tons (MT) ending up in our oceans, 30 million MT dumped in landfills, and another 50 million MT of plastic is incinerated yearly, which also, unfortunately, has been used as a strategy by apparel brands to rid themselves of unsold inventory.

Clearly, the clothing industry has a massive problem with creating plastics, especially polyester fibres which account for 52% of global fibre production. Polyester fibres exist for hundreds of years, with no real substantial infrastructure to recycle these items at end of life. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation reports that 87% of the material used for clothing production is landfilled or incinerated after its final use. While there have been some smaller projects of mechanically recycled polyester from specific clean and unmixed feedstocks, most notably by Unifi, mass-scale recycling of polyester clothing is simply is not feasible with our current recycling infrastructure.

Mechanical recycling is not enough

Only about 14% of all plastics are mechanically recycled. The major limitation with mechanical recycling is the need for high-purity feedstock, typically bottles that are uncontaminated, which requires intensive sorting processes. However, there is hope on the horizon with new circular technologies coming online that will enable us to recycle the plastic we have already produced, including plastics like polyester that are not suitable for mechanical recycling. Potentially these fibres will be able to be recycled indefinitely with no loss of quality.

Much of the feedstock for recycled PET comes from bottles
Photo Credit : Polina Tankilevitch

Chemical recycling processes takes plastic product waste, such as clothing, and return it to its original monomers, which can then be recombined into materials that are indistinguishable from virgin polyester, or as it is chemically known as polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Brands that have positioned themselves as champions of sustainability need to lead and plan on incorporating circular design approaches with chemical recycling into their production processes. There are several companies working this technology and making progress on developing it to an industrial scale. 

Teijin

Teijin is widely recognized as commercially pioneering the chemically recycled PET processes and has been at the forefront of innovation in this field. Teijin’s Eco-Circle technology allows the recovery of dimethyl terephthalate (DMT) and ethylene glycol (EG), (raw materials used in making polyester) from most types of polyester products, even those containing additives or processing substances. The recovered raw materials have a high purity that is comparable to materials produced from petroleum sources.

Brands that have positioned themselves as champions of sustainability need to lead and plan on incorporating circular design approaches with chemical recycling

Eastman

Eastman is developing Advanced Circular Recycling (ARC) technology to recycle polyester clothing and plastic waste. Currently under development, and expected to commercially launch in the next 2-3 years, Eastman’s ARC process uses methanol as a solvent for depolymerization in a process known as methanolysis, to produce ingredients for proprietary specialty plastics, that are used for BPA-free water bottles, cosmetic packaging, and household plastic goods.


Photo Credit : Eastman

Eastman is able to take diverse recycled PET feedstock, from textiles, carpets, packaging, to silicone-coated PET for example, and chemically recycle it to create key ingredients to make plastics. With ARC technology, Eastman is also able to produce dimethyl terephthalate (DMT) monomer and ethylene glycol.

Tyton Biosciences

Tyton Biosciences uses subcritical water extraction technology, a proprietary hydrolysis process that uses water as a solvent, to separate polyester-cotton blends into two main byproducts. The process is able to create a cellulosic pulp that can be made into viscose or other man-made cellulosic fibres. The polyester is also broken down to its monomers, and terephthalic acid and ethylene glycol are produced, which can be used to create new polyester products. 

The technology is currently in the pilot stage, but Tyton Biosciences has received financing to build a small commercial-scale plant. Through their process, they are able to recover 85-90% of the raw materials recycled from the polyester-cotton blends recycled with their process. The water is also recycled in the process, making it highly circular and sustainably efficient.

Jeplan 

Japanese companies ASICS and Jeplan have partnered for a circular designed project to manufacture the official team wear for Tokyo 2020 Japan Olympic and Paralympic Team, when the games are rescheduled in 2021.

The ASICS campaign aims to knit together the story of sports in Japanese society

In 2019, ASICS collected 30,000 donated items of polyester sportswear. The ASICS Reborn Wear Project specifically requesting clothing associated with “precious memories from school teams, sports days and marathons,” with collection boxes set up in retail stores and sports venues and arenas, making it easy for the Japanese public to participate. 

Photo Credit : Asics

Jeplan will then take the donated clothing, and recycle it with a chemical recycling process called glycolysis, where it dissolves and depolymerizes polyester fibres using ethylene glycol as a solvent to synthesize a Bis(2-Hydroxyethyl) terephthalate (BHET) monomer. Jeplan is able to create 50% chemically recycled PET, using the BHET monomer with purified terephthalic acid (PTA). 

The chemical recycled PET pellets produced by Jeplan will be used by ASICS’s manufacturing partners to create Olympic and Paralympic uniforms and footwear for the Japanese athletes. The ASICS campaign aims to knit together the story of sports in Japanese society with the hopes and dreams of its athletes in a meaningful way while championing sustainability through a unique circular process. 

The Asics Reborn Wear Project Photo Credit : Asics

The Next Steps

Chemical recycling technology is an important step forward to creating circular products, especially for athleticwear, where polyester is used extensively across the industry.

We can actively support companies that are developing chemical recycling technology to create the critical mass needed to push sustainable circular processes forward and be a part of the solution to reduce plastic waste. The products we create do not have to be the end of the story, as they can be broken back down to the basic building blocks, and assembled into something new that can be worn with pride!

For further information please reach out to ruth@ruthssachs.co

Check out more Ssach’s sustainability articles below:


SSACHS Newsletter

Sign up for our newsletter and receive regular updates.

We use Mailchimp as our marketing platform. By clicking below to subscribe, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to Mailchimp for processing. Learn more about Mailchimp's privacy practices here.

X