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Chasing Circularity: Inside Fiber and Yarn Producers’ Push to Close the Loop

Circularity has become a centerpiece of sustainable innovation in fashion, as the industry aims to lower the impact of apparel by reducing waste.

From their position upstream in the supply chain, a number of fiber and yarn producers are leading the transition from a linear to circular fashion model by creating materials out of recycled inputs. They are also thinking holistically about the lifecycle of a garment, considering the impact during and after its time in a consumer’s wardrobe.

“We are all acutely aware that the apparel industry creates a large amount of waste each year. In fact, it is one of the biggest polluters in the world,” Unifi CEO Eddie Ingle told Sourcing Journal. “A report published by Accelerating Circularity estimates that Americans discard 81 pounds of clothing each year, with only 15 percent of that being donated or recycled. We must help break this cycle.”

Sourcing Journal caught up with executives from Eastman, Nilit and Unifi to discuss how they are addressing circularity in their own operations and what the industry needs to do to move recycling efforts forward.

Circular creations

Circularity at Unifi began in the early aughts as the company sought to reduce its waste footprint. In service of this goal, Unifi launched its recycled polyester yarn brand Repreve commercially back in 2007. Originally, Repreve was created using manufacturing waste from Unifi’s own operations, but the company later expanded its inputs to include plastic bottles. To-date, Unifi has recycled more than 20 billion bottles into polyester, and by 2022, it expects that number to reach 30 billion.

Repreve uses 45 percent less energy, almost 20 percent less water and produces 30 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than conventional polyester. Ingle noted that along with these benefits, Repreve has the same quality and performance characteristics as virgin polyester.

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“Recycled polyester is growing faster than virgin polyester, and we hope that the number of takeback programs we have in place will grow at an even faster pace,” said Ingle. “The circular economy is no longer a buzzword; it’s certainly here to stay.”

Like Unifi, Nilit’s nylon recycling began about a decade ago as a way to reuse its own internal waste. While these materials have been on the market, Sagee Aran, head of global marketing at Nilit, said demand for its recycled yarns—marketed under the Sensil EcoCare brand—has skyrocketed since late 2019. “We saw that there are a lot of new brands that want to come with a story, to say that they’re responsible as to what they’re doing, they’re not just fast fashion,” he said.

Aran said that in creating recycled materials, one necessity is getting the polymer back to the exact same parameters as virgin inputs. Beyond a quality consideration, it is necessary to have clean material that can pass through the spinning equipment.

This need for “first quality” recycled materials similarly adds steps for Unifi in making Repreve, including sorting, washing, chopping and filtering the bailed PET that it sources from materials recovery facilities.

In its own circular move, chemical company Eastman expanded its Naia cellulosic fiber line to include a recycled material, Naia Renew. Naia, which was originally introduced on the market in 2018, is made of 60 percent wood pulp and 40 percent acetic acid derived from fossil fuels. Eastman’s recently launched Naia Renew product is still made with 60 percent wood pulp and 40 percent acetic acid, but the acid is produced from plastic waste. This process of turning plastic into acetic acid leverages Eastman’s carbon renewal technology, which can handle impurities and up to seven types of mixed plastics, including complex waste such as cosmetic jars that can’t be mechanically recycled.

After the creation of the acid, the manufacturing process behind Naia Renew is exactly the same as that used for Naia. Ruth Farrell, global marketing director for Eastman’s textiles business, said this creates an identical end product when it comes to performance and quality.

Eastman debuted Naia Renew at a commercial scale, with fast-fashion giant H&M as the first brand partner. Reflecting Eastman’s focus on circularity, by 2025, the company plans to have Naia Renew make up more than 50 percent of its entire textile portfolio. It also intends to grow Naia Renew’s share of its textile portfolio to 90 percent by 2030.

One of the current feedstocks for Naia Renew is polyester carpeting, but Eastman is working to expand its recycling capabilities to textiles. Currently, this use of fabric inputs is limited to pilot tests, but Farrell is hoping for a market launch this year. Indicating Eastman’s investment in textile-derived inputs, the goals for Naia Renew include having more than a quarter of the recycled content come from textile waste by 2025.

While these companies have focused on creating recycled fibers that share the same properties as their counterparts made of virgin inputs, one area where circular materials differ is in cost.

Aran estimated that the current premium for recycled fibers is about 15 to 20 percent. Part of the reason for the cost difference is the investment in research and development needed to bring circular fibers to market. He believes that in the long-term, pricing for recycled fibers should come in line with conventional materials.

Even with higher prices in the short-term, the market is still adopting these solutions.

Naia Renew has an approximate 10 percent premium over Naia, but the price point is designed for wide adoption. “It’s not a very high premium compared to many other circular fibers that are out there,” Farrell said. “We purposely have been positioning Naia Renew as a solution that can be accessible, and that can be in the mainstream and in core collections.”

Post-consumer planning

With the considerable volume of textiles that end up in landfills, waste-conscious companies are working to turn post-consumer garments into new fiber inputs.

“I think the nirvana really is to be able to have recycling of post-consumer garments and have them used as a feedstock,” said Farrell. “We just have to build the infrastructure to allow for that.”

According to Farrell, it will take collaboration to bring solutions in collection and sorting to scale, including knowing which blends to send toward which recycling technology. For instance, Eastman’s own technology would favor textile blends with high polyester content. “There’s many solutions out there, but they’re niche. And if you want to make a measurable difference in supporting the climate and repairing some of the damage that’s already done, then we’ve got to all work together to try and figure out how you can very feasibly bring in these new feedstocks, source them, sort them, have that collection stream, and also that feedstock entry,” she said. “It’s complex, but it can be done.”

Unifi, which founded its Repreve Textile Takeback Program in 2011 with Polartec as its first partner, sees the opportunity for these types of programs to become more mainstream. “We’re very committed to being a part of the solution for textiles to go back into textiles—helping brands first do something with their textile waste coming from the shop floor, and when they develop better garment collection systems, as consumers become more educated, we’ll be there to help them turn those textiles into textiles,” said Ingle.

When possible, this can lead to a full-circle loop. In one example, Unifi collected plastic bottles from the University of Washington campus and turned the plastic into Repreve, which was then used to make graduation robes for students. The gowns could then be recycled again, perpetuating the circular concept.

Compared to industrial castoffs, using pre-worn garments as a feedstock comes with its own set of challenges. First, to be able to effectively recycle materials, the company needs to know their exact composition. However, this can prove difficult when taking garments from sources such as a landfill.

Aran noted that although fiber content is written on tags, these often aren’t present once garments are disposed of. Even if the labels are still attached, they might not give enough information, such as helping to distinguish between the specific polymers behind different types of nylons. Nilit is working to add traceability technology to its nylon 6.6 yarn that would enable it to identify it at end of life.

Nilit is beginning to partner with companies to create garment collections that are designed for circularity, enabling it to know exactly what is going into the garments so they can be more easily sorted and recycled at end of life. “It’s a change of mind in the entire business,” said Aran. “Therefore, we’re not doing it alone.”

In an ideal world, textiles would be made with a single type of fiber to allow for easier recycling. To aid in the recycling process, Nilit has been working to reduce the amount of elastane in nylon materials. The company has created a nylon 6.6 with higher elasticity so that garments can have stretch with almost 100 percent nylon.

“Product design and ease of destruction is something that we should talk about because recycling is one thing on the front end,” said Unifi’s Ingle.

“The next big question is, what can you do with that piece of apparel or gear once you’re done with it at the end of its life?

“Creating something that can easily be deconstructed so it can then be recycled again is certainly a challenge—but also one of our goals,” Ingle said.

Dyed fibers also present a sustainable challenge for recycling, since it takes energy to strip color off a textile. Nilit is collaborating with a dyehouse to create nylon dyestuff that can be more easily stripped off yarn so it can be turned into a blank slate to be reused. Another solution Nilit has developed for this problem is Sensil WaterCare, which is a nylon yarn that has color embedded in the yarn at the point when it is spun. In a recycling process, these dope dyed yarns can stay the same hue to eliminate the need to strip off color.

Continuing the circle

Circularity goes beyond recycling to encompass the full lifecycle of a textile, and in particular what happens after a consumer makes a purchase.

One way to reduce fashion waste is to extend a garment’s life. Naia’s properties include pilling resistance and easy stain removal, which Farrell hopes will encourage consumers to keep Naia garments in their closets longer.

When consumers are washing their clothes and releasing microfibers, or when items eventually get tossed, fiber makers are also considering the biodegradability of materials.

“If we’re just looking at circularity from the point of view of recycling, we’re missing a little bit the big picture,” said Aran.

“Today synthetics are mostly coming out of fossil. And at the end, they’re ending up at landfills and other places,” Aran added. He sees circularity as three circles: Nilit’s internal operations and its own recycling efforts, the fashion industry partners that are supporting reuse by using its yarns, and broader waste found in nature that can biodegrade.

Nilit has developed Sensil by Nature, a nylon yarn that is composed of bio-based materials, and Sensil BioCare, which has biodegradable attributes in landfills or seawater. Both of these are in the beginning stages, with early adopter customers beginning to do bulk orders.

Naia is also biodegradable, and Eastman encourages companies to use 100 percent Naia or blend it with other fibers that share the same properties.

Eastman brings circularity into more than just its fibers, thinking about its broader material impact. As an example, the company would take wood used in its trade show booths and turn it into toys for children in disadvantaged communities. Eastman has also committed that any new technologies will have a life-cycle assessment that is neutral or better.

“Circularity is more than just the feedstock, you’ve got to look at that 360 and look at sustainability from a holistic perspective, even how you do business,” said Farrell.