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Recycled Polyester is Helping Lift Fiber’s Sales and Image

Polyester’s image has seen roller coaster-like ups and downs over the years—from unaesthetic leisure suits and claims of microfiber pollution to high performance activewear that battles the elements. Now, it’s polyester’s recycled fibers with high environmental quotient that are in the spotlight.

The global polyester staple fiber market is expected to reach $39.3 billion by 2025, according to a report from Research and Markets, with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 6.3%. The rise in the global consumption of sustainable textiles has been a major factor driving market growth, the report noted.

Polyester’s high elastic resilience and tenacity, plus a profile that’s moving more toward eco-friendly with increased market share of recycled polyester, could boost the fiber market growth over the next seven years. The apparel segment is expected to see the greatest uptick, with a CAGR of 6.7% by 2025.

“There’s a lot more demand for recycled polyester, but it is still small in comparison to virgin polyester,” said Karla Magruder, founder of Fabrikology and lead for Textile Exchange’s Recycled Polyester Working Group.

While Magruder pointed to estimates that peg recycled polyester at roughly 14 percent of the polyester market, she said much of it is in low-grade fiber for fiberfill and industrial use. “For filament fiber, you need, better, higher quality.”

Virgin polyester staple fiber is the largest market segment and is estimated to generate revenue of $16.45 billion by 2025. According to the Research and Markets report, recycled polyester staple is forecast to see “promising market growth over the forecast period owing to rising environmental consciousness across the globe.”

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Peter J. Spitalny, president and founder of Stein Fibers, which primarily serves the home, furniture and automotive industries, said increased price competitiveness has been the leading reason for growth in the recycled polyester sector.

“The market for recycled has just absolutely expanded and grown dramatically,” Spitalny said. “There has been dramatic improvement in the quality of recycled fiber.”

Stein Fibers has production facilities in Lafayette, Ga., and Spartanburg, N.C., and Spitalny noted there’s significant foreign investment in the United States for recycled polyester facilities that are “replacing a lot of virgin fiber.”

Kevin Hall, chairman and CEO of Unifi Inc., maker of the Repreve brand of recycled polyester fiber, said on a recent conference call with analysts that fourth quarter sales grew 5.9% from the prior year period on the strength of its premium value-added (PVA) product portfolio, led by Repreve.

“On an annual basis…PVA revenue exceeded $300 million for fiscal 2018,” Hall said. “The strong PVA performance was a key contributor to our international sales growth, which was up 19 percent in the fourth quarter compared to the prior-year period. This all leads to further progress against our goal of recycling 20 billion plastic bottles by 2020. On that front, I’m pleased to announce that we recently surpassed the 12 billion plastic bottle mark, a very meaningful milestone.”

Adding to that, Hall said the Unifi has helped its customers deliver on their sustainability goals by offering Repreve-based premium performance products, and the Repreve brand has been growing in recognition.

The Burlington Group recently introduced its next generation of sustainable fabrics called ReGenesis, a renewable collection for the eco-conscious outdoor enthusiast. The ReGenesis collection features fabrics made from a range of innovative recycled content from new sustainability partners Eco Circle and Seaqual, which join long-standing sustainability partners Repreve and Thread to offer customers a broad range of renewable materials.

“We love the outdoors, and we believe repurposing waste is a way for us to do our part to make sure future generations have as many or more opportunities as we do for a healthy environment,” said Nelson Bebo, vice president of technical sales development for Burlington. “Going forward, every new development in our Enthusiast Collection of performance fabrics will have at least 30 percent recycled content. Our commitment is to push the limits for our customers, creating fabrics that use new sustainable content and are produced in eco-friendly facilities focused on reducing our environmental footprint and impact.”

Eco Circle fibers powered by Teijin use a closed loop recycling system to give new life to old polyester-based garments. Teijin’s innovative process separates and eliminates additives and colorants, and purifies the recycled polyester to its original quality and function.

In an effort toward recycling marine plastics, Seaqual fibers are made from 100 percent post-consumer plastic bottles and plastic waste reclaimed from the Mediterranean Sea. These create yarns that contain about 93 percent to 95 percent recycled PET and 3 percent to 7 percent ocean plastics, Burlington noted.

Burlington is currently working with American & Efird to promote ReGenesis shirtings. Bebo said the soon-to-be-launched sustainable concept runs from fabric to thread using a combination of Burlington’s ReGenesis fabric with A&E’s recycled performance sewing thread featuring Repreve “to create the next evolution in full sustainable shirting.”

“Our innovation focus this year is around combining new technologies with noticeable and superior consumer benefits into the Repreve platform,” Unifi’s Hall said. “We also provide these technologies on our virgin platform, but our primary focus is recycled. Key innovations in our product offerings being delivered this year include thermal regulation, superior cushioning and coverage and improved wicking or moisture management.”

The recycled polyester market’s expansion isn’t without some growing pains, though. Spitalny noted that a major issue in the recycled polyester market at present is how to make a fine denier or micro denier that can be spun with minimal defects in order to be blended with such materials as cotton and rayon for apparel or home.

Another issue, Magruder noted, is China’s banning of all waste through to recycled PET chip, “so when availability becomes difficult, companies turn back to virgin polyester.”

The Polyester Working Group currently has 59 companies committing to increase the use of recycled polyester by 25 percent by 2020.

Among them is Adidas, which said in July that as part of its first priority in using sustainable materials its “ultimate ambition” is to replace all virgin plastic in its products with 100 percent recycled polyester “in every product and on every application where a solution exists by 2024.”

The company’s Spring 2019 apparel range already contains roughly 41 percent recycled polyester.

There’s no doubt interest in recycled polyester is high, particularly as an alternative to virgin polyester. Magruder noted that recycled polyester consistently scored markedly higher on environmental impact indexes, such as Made By and HIGG, based on how it’s manufactured and for taking plastic bottles out of the waste stream. Work also is being undertaken on recycling recycled polyester to ensure it achieves true circularity.

“The demand and the desire is there to increase the use of recycled polyester,” Magruder said. “Recycled polyester is going to continue to grow and Textile Exchange is doing a lot of work on it.”