YnFx Sustainable Conversations

James Cooper – Sustainability Manager at Unifi Inc.

Our recent interaction with Mr. James Cooper, Sustainability Manager at Unifi, Inc., reveals insights into the company’s recycled performance fiber – REPREVE and how it is reducing its impact as a textile solutions company.

Unifi transforming more than 25 billion plastic bottles into recycled fiber—Repreve

2021-11-24 12:17:53 – USA

Unifi, Inc. is a North Carolina-based global textile solutions provider and one of the largest manufacturers of textured polyester and nylon in the world. They’re so committed to sustainability that they collect their own plastic bottles and convert them into REPREVE fiber — world's number one brand of recycled performance fiber. 

Through REPREVE®, Unifi has transformed more than 25 billion plastic bottles into recycled fiber and diverted them from being sent to landfills and oceans. They combine sustainability and innovation together in REPREVE polyester and work with some of the leading brands in the world such as Patagonia and The North Face.

Our recent interaction with Mr. James Cooper, Sustainability Manager at Unifi, Inc., reveals insights into the company’s recycled performance fiber – REPREVE and how it is reducing its impact as a textile solutions company.

YnFx: What inspired the creation of REPREVE®?

Cooper: In the early-2000s, we started taking an even harder look at our sustainability initiatives, with the goal of reducing the amount of waste we sent to landfills. We wanted to do this by recycling our own waste. At the same time, consumers began demanding products made from more recycled content. This is where REPREVE® was born.

After finding a way to recycle our own waste, we wanted to take things a step further with our sustainability goals. In 2007, we began making REPREVE from 100% recycled materials, including post-consumer plastic bottles and post-industrial waste. In addition, we were the first company to create yarn that replicates the performance of virgin materials.

YnFx: How do you source the various raw materials for your recycled products?

Cooper: We have three recycled products: REPREVE polyester, REPREVE nylon, and REPREVE Our Ocean™ REPREVE POLYESTER: Unifi collaborates with waste collection operations across the globe to collect bottles, which are then brought to the REPREVE® Bottle Processing Center in Reidsville, N.C. where they are sorted, cleaned and chopped into bottle flake. That flake is melted and extruded into REPREVE chip, which is then spun into REPREVE performance recycled fiber. The fiber is either woven or knit into the fabric that goes into items consumers use every day, including apparel, shoes, socks, home furnishings, and automotive seating.

REPREVE NYLON: Nylon can’t be made from plastic bottles. At least, not yet. But we make it eco-friendly. Unifi makes REPREVE nylon with “pre-consumer” waste. Recycling nylon fibers from our own manufacturing saves a lot of energy and makes the best use of resources. And, it results in a fiber that’s high quality, certifiably sustainable, and available with performance technologies, too.

REPREVE OUR OCEAN™: REPREVE Our Ocean is a recycled fiber that is made with plastics collected within 50 km of waterways or coastal areas in developing countries or regions—primarily in the Americas and in Asia. Because 80% of ocean plastic comes from land-based sources, and 75% of that is uncollected waste, the company’s approach prevents plastic waste from ever entering the ocean.

YnFx: are the various measures taken by the company in various manufacturing stages to ensure sustainability?

Cooper: It’s important to note that transparency is what makes REPREVE different. There are several 3rd party certification services available that certify recycled content. Unifi uses Scientific Certification Systems (SCS), an international leader in third-party certification, validation, and verification for environmental, sustainability, and food safety and quality performance claims. The company also goes one step further and includes a proprietary tracer in every pound of REPREVE polyester and nylon it produces throughout the world—REPREVE fibers are embedded with a proprietary FiberPrint® technology that helps Unifi’s customers avoid false environmental claims. The company issues its own U-Trust® Certifications by testing fabrics and/or garments for the presence of REPREVE® fiber to further assure its customers their product is recycled.

YnFx: What are some of the challenges you face during the production of REPREVE?

Cooper: As businesses across the globe recognize the importance of using recycled materials where possible, demand for post-consumer plastic waste has increased. To increase the supply of this waste, we need consumers, businesses, and governments to work together to increase recycling rates – particularly in the US where only 29% of available PET is recycled.

YnFx: What is the environmental footprint of REPREVE and how it is contributing to the industry’s journey towards sustainability?

Cooper: Unifi recently got our Higg MSI score, which scores a product’s life cycle impact. The study confirmed that REPREVE manufactured in the United States reduces the global warming potential by 21% compared to conventionally processed, mechanically recycled polyester, and 45% compared to conventional virgin polyester. The Higg MSI global warming potential is related to greenhouse gases and based on the score, REPREVE is verified to have a lower carbon footprint than alternative materials.

In addition to recycling our own waste, we have recycled more than 27 billion bottles and transformed them into REPREVE performance fiber. Our current goal is to recycle 30 billion bottles in 2022 and we are well on our way to reaching that target.

YnFx: What are the other sustainable products Unifi offers other than REPREVE?

Cooper: Our Waterwise™ innovative and sustainable performance technology. Color is blended into the fibers, offering long-lasting, vibrant fabric colors with a waterless dyeing process that conserves natural resources. Waterwise™ is a greener way to color. The solution dye becomes part of the fiber as it is being extruded, resulting in rich, brilliant, long-lasting color and helps conserve water and energy, using fewer natural resources.

YnFx: What are the future goals of the company?

Cooper: When it comes to sustainability, we are always stretching to do more, and we are now focused on helping to accelerate circularity. In a circular economy, garments and home furnishings are made of reclaimed components, and after a product is discarded, the materials and parts are reused, repaired, or recycled. Unifi has been a pioneer of circular textile take-back programs for the last 10 years and has plans to further increase its efforts. Simply put, this is where textiles go back into textiles.

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