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Unifi Recycles 20 Billion Plastic Bottles—and Counting

In releasing its first corporate Sustainability Report, Unifi Inc. executives said they’ve “consciously chosen not to look at sustainability as a division or a subset of the organization, but as a core strategic pillar that permeates through all aspects of our organization.”

“As Unifi prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary next year, we’re stronger than ever when it comes to our sustainability initiatives,” CEO Eddie Ingle said in the report. “What began as a way to recycle our own textile waste in the early 2000s, has evolved into Repreve, the world’s leading recycled performance fiber. The growth of Repreve has helped transition the company’s decades-long reliance on commodity-oriented textured polyester to sustainable value-added products that are made for the good of tomorrow.”

Ingle said Covid-19 has undoubtedly changed the way the Greensboro, N.C.-based company does business. But one thing hasn’t changed, he said–“the demand for sustainable products.”

“Unifi will continue to innovate and adapt in ways that position the company and our customers to be competitive in a challenging environment,” he said. “We remain committed to furthering our sustainability efforts over the next 50 years and beyond, with strong attention to social, environmental and ethical conscience in how and with whom we do business.”’

During 2020, Unifi transformed its 20 billionth plastic bottle, and counting, into Repreve recycled polyester fiber, which keeps substantial waste out of natural and urban landscapes, reduces energy and water consumption, and produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions versus virgin fiber. Unifi also facilitates textile takeback of polyester fabrics that can be mechanically recycled into yarns.

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In 2019, Unifi launched Repreve Our Ocean, an expansion of the Repreve product line made specifically with ocean-bound plastic. Unifi collects post-consumer plastic bottles within 50 kilometers of coastlines in countries and regions that lack formal waste or recycling systems.

Since 80 percent of ocean plastic comes from land-based sources and 75 percent of that is uncollected waste, this approach prevents plastic waste from ever entering the ocean, the company noted. Unifi’s FiberPrint technology for Repreve Our Ocean allows it to validate the use of its ocean-bound plastic bottles in any fabric.

Also mixed into Unifi’s sustainability and environmentally purposed operations is its solar farm in Yadkinville, N.C., which generates enough energy to power approximately 150 homes each year.

In addition, the company stressed that it is “actively focused on the most responsible utilization of all byproducts and waste materials, not just those utilized in our Repreve processes.”

Its sortation facilities are an enabling part of its efforts to become a zero-waste manufacturing company. Materials ranging from cardboard to plastic to food waste are sorted into various categories to align the greatest opportunities for reuse and recycling with internal processes and outside processors. The majority of the waste generated in its manufacturing operations is utilized in the Repreve processes.

Unifi is also researching the development of advanced recycling processes, including chemical recycling, through various emerging mechanisms and technologies. Optimal filtration, separation of contaminants and color removal are all key aspects of making a novel technology scalable and widely accepted. The company provides expertise and developmental insights regarding many aspects of these technologies, including feedstock management, recycling and melt-extrusion.