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Polyester Consumption Growth Fuels Demand for Recycled Fibers

With athleisure on the rise, polyester has reached new heights in world fiber consumption.

Speaking at a Texworld USA seminar in New York City on recycled polyester earlier this month, Chad Bolick, global brand sales manager at Unifi Manufacturing, a leading producer of multi-filament polyester and nylon textured yarns, said polyester consumption is growing at a rate of 5 percent per year.

“In 1991, polyester was 22 percent of world fiber consumption, now we are close to almost 60 percent,” Bolick said. “That demand, that growth, is causing some concerns around what is going into making that polyester.”

Though brands have been increasingly incorporating recycled materials—namely made from plastic bottles—in their apparel products, the U.S. only recycles roughly 30 percent of the plastic bottles consumed in the country. Comparatively, China is recycling up to 83 percent of theirs.

In an effort to up the level of recycling in the U.S., Unifi has plans to open an expanded plastic bottle processing facility in its North Carolina home in September, largely for its recycled fiber brand, Repreve. The center is expected to take the company’s recycled poly output from a current 72 million pounds a year to 100 million pounds by October 2016.

Through its Textile Takeback program, Unifi has even been able to use cut-and-sew fabric waste or end garment waste, and cut it, shred it and use it to make Repreve. According to Bolick, Repreve cuts back on energy use by 45 percent compared to virgin polyester production, reduces water use by 20 percent and greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent.

Whereas the fiber once only went into high-end outerwear, brands like Adidas, Nike, Patagonia, Timberland, Target, Levi’s, Puma and Vitamin A swimwear are using it for apparel, uniforms, intimates, hosiery, socks, swimwear, accessories and footwear, Bolick said.

Read: New Textile Exchange Report Shows Apparel Companies Balance Material Mix for Sustainability

Highlights aside, as Jeff Wilson, director of business strategy and development at Textile Exchange, added, only 5 percent (roughly) of the polyester that’s used in textiles today is recycled—a fact that could be considered unfortunate since mechanically recycled polyester saves up to 85 percent energy use compared to virgin polyester and reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent.

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By 2018, global polyester production is forecast to be 59 billion kilograms (130 billion pounds), and if 50 percent (instead of just 5 percent) of the polyester that’s used in apparel and textiles could come from recycled raw materials, here’s what the sector could save: 2.2 trillion megajoules of energy (or the equivalent of 359.5 million barrels of oil), 202 billion liters of water, nearly 93 billion pounds worth of CO2 and 11 billion pounds of waste.

“The opportunity for change and the opportunity for adoption is just huge,” Wilson said.

What the industry will need—as with most things—is for the bigger players to buy in so the costs for more sustainable processes that yield friendlier fibers, like those from recycled raw materials, can come down to a more accessible level.

But according to Bolick, that’s already starting to happen more and more.

“We are seeing a lot of the bigger brands and retailers now getting that sustainability target…and as that grows, you are going to see a reduction,” he said. “At the beginning [Repreve was] only in a $200 jacket, now we’re in a $15 swimsuit, an $8 T-shirt.”

Though prices for virgin polyester have been falling and the price of crude oil has come down, costs for processing recycled polyester remain high, and that’s part of what’s inhibiting greater uptake.

However, Bolick said, “As volumes grow, you will start to see the price become more and more economical. The impact of this cost has to be spread out along the supply chain so that the end customer doesn’t see a major increase.”