Inside Unifi, Where Old Plastic Becomes New Fabric

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We frequently hear about companies that have green initiatives and sustainable practices. But large companies are often unknowable, making their green practices seem like little more than nice gestures. At Earth911, we wanted to go inside a company that does its part to help the environment and meet some of the people whose jobs make a difference in the fight against waste.

So, we got the inside scoop at Unifi, a North Carolina–based textile manufacturer that has been on the cutting edge of sustainability in the textile industry for years. Even if the name Unifi doesn’t ring a bell, you’re probably familiar with their recycled polyester yarn, called Repreve, which is found in everything from North Face jackets to swimming suits to high school graduation gowns. Keep reading to learn more about how employees at Unifi work to reduce waste.

The Company

Beginning around 2005, Unifi wanted to find strategies to cut costs, and some of their engineers came up with a way to incorporate their post-industrial polyester fiber waste back into their products. This reduced costs and helped the company send less to landfills. After a couple of years, the new recycled product was just as high-quality as the company’s virgin polyester yarns.

“After our customers started receiving that product really well, they asked us to start incorporating not only our waste and other industry waste, but also incorporating plastic bottles into that waste stream,” Roger Berrier, president and COO at Unifi, tells Earth911.

According to Berrier, this year the company has already recycled 400 million plastic water bottles into yarn. Because of interest from Unifi’s customers — including companies like Ford, Patagonia and Volcom — the recycled yarn business has grown tremendously over the past five years, with Repreve now representing close to 10 percent of the company’s production, Berrier says.

Unifi has paved the way for recycled yarns in its industry, making clothing crafted from plastic bottles a concept that many are familiar with.

“We like to be thought of as a solution provider. We’re the enabler. Somebody has to be first,” Berrier says. “Somebody has to enable the process. Once we take the waste materials and we convert them back into a yarn, we certify it and guarantee it. Then it becomes more of a natural process for everyone else in the supply chain.”

Using Innovation & Education to Fight Waste

While upcycling plastic bottles into fabrics may be a familiar concept, the process itself may seem a little puzzling. One of the people at Unifi who helps demystify this process for customers and consumers also happens to be one of the people who works to create and improve the process itself.

Meredith Boyd is a product development manager at Unifi, which means she’s involved in many parts of the process of turning plastic waste into yarn. Her job entails things like selecting raw materials, investigating how to handle difficult waste materials, and looking at how to spin, texture and dye the yarn.

“In a lot of cases, like the performance apparel application, a customer is going to desire a very fine, soft-hand product, and it may take a different process to figure out how can we do that versus [another] fabric where it might be a little bit more forgiving,” Boyd explains.

In addition to dealing with the technical processes, Boyd also plays an important role in working with customers to fulfill their goals, as well as educating customers and ultimately consumers.

“We really enjoy helping to educate our customers and then of course the broader-base consumer about why Repreve does make a really positive impact. We talk a lot about how many bottles are recovered by the Repreve program,” she says.

Showing people a plastic bottle and then showing them a finished garment may impress them, but how that transformation occurs seems very abstract to most people. Boyd enjoys explaining the steps in between. She also says her position allows her to dispel some of the misconceptions that exist around recycled products — that they are of lower quality, for example.

“It was very easy to become passionate about helping to craft how we explain Repreve’s story,” Boyd says.

Finding a Job That Fights Waste

Like many careers, pursuing a job that helps eliminate waste and benefits the environment isn’t necessarily linear.

“I actually was a chemistry major and math minor,” Boyd says. “I didn’t have a tremendous amount of exposure to the textile industry in class in college. I did have some classes that were textile specific, but that was not my major.”

While in college, though, Boyd became involved with a local environmental nonprofit, which she said helped her learn how to engage with consumers about an organization’s goals. That experience informs some of the work she does now with Unifi.

“I see a lot of parallels with the early days in that environmental nonprofit,” she says. “When you’re passionate about something, you do get very excited to get other people on board and then it really starts to create positive change.”

As a company, Unifi is conscious of its own environmental footprint both in terms of reducing waste during production and in other ways like striving to be zero-waste in its office and manufacturing facilities. That commitment to making a positive impact was one of the things that initially attracted Boyd to Unifi.

In the future, Boyd expects Unifi’s technical processes to allow for more innovation.

“I think we will continue to really investigate and look for where we can make investments to handle a greater diversity of polyester waste,” Boyd says.

Up until this point, Unifi has worked primarily with its own polyester fiber waste and plastic bottles, but has begun investigating how to incorporate fabric scrap from the sewing process as well as post-consumer polyester garments that are no longer wearable into their yarns. Polyester packing materials and films may also play a role in recycled fibers in the future.

“We were really the first to tackle taking any polyester waste materials and putting them into an extremely critical product that has the properties and the function and physical aesthetic of a virgin product,” Boyd says. “From the technology standpoint, I think what you’ll see is continued investment in being able to handle a greater diversity of polyester.”

Feature image: Unifi, an innovative textile company, turns polyester waste like plastic bottles into recycled yarn. Photo: Unifi

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