Will the supply of recycled polyester make it fashionable to meet its commitments in 2030? – WWD

It’s easy to make promises when you have no idea how hard they can be to keep.

And that’s what many brands and retailers have done when it comes to recycled polyester – pledging to use more of it, promising to prioritize it over virgin fibers, stating that they will achieve X percent rPET in their product lines by 2025, 2030, 2050.

While all of this might sound good, rPET is surprisingly rare, and clothing gamers won’t be the first to pick up on what’s there.

“We’re at a point where we can’t add more end-use applications unless we increase supply,” said Darrel Collier, executive director of the National Association for PET Container Resources, or NAPCOR. NAPCOR is the supply chain of PET containers (like plastic bottles), the predominant source of the coveted rPET, and counts all parties along this supply chain, from bottle processors to Unifi, among its members.

The problem, mainly, is that everyone is scrambling for recycled content as awareness of the global waste problem grows. Beyond that, while over the past 10 years, the recovery capacity of PET (or the amount of PET that can be absorbed and recycled to make recycled PET, or rPET), has increased by “a just under a billion pounds, ”according to Collier. , the plastic bottle recycling rate in the United States during the same period has remained around 30%, meaning that the country has not improved its ability to recover more than one in three bottles of consumers to recycle in a decade. In some countries, by comparison, reclamation rates can reach 80 or 90 percent.

Basically the United States is prepared to recycle a lot more PET than it can get.

These details relate directly to the ability to deliver on 2030 commitments, making them tied to both ESG scores and investments (read: money) as well as meeting consumer demands (read: loyal, which , in the end, also translates into money).

As nuanced as it is, this is a substantive issue beyond a simple environmental issue. Especially since scarcity is what drives up prices.

From his point of view, and if the status quo holds, Collier said that brands “will not be able to meet their expectations. [recycled polyester] commitments. “

“The market is growing. PET is a very versatile product. It has a great life cycle when you look at ACV, it has a much lower carbon footprint than competing offerings. It was a lower price, so it’s very, very efficient, ”he said, noting the main reasons brands seek PET for recycled content more than any other waste stream that could produce waste. fibers for textiles. “We are limited in supply today. The investment in reclamation by those involved in reclamation capacity has been there, but the problem is that they aren’t able to invest in something if they feel they don’t have a supply of it. .

Additionally, the scarcity of rPET supply means that prices, once lower, increase and will continue to do so as competition for this supply intensifies.

“We went through a period of a few years where rPET prices were higher than virgin resin prices,” Collier said.

And now that the world’s Coke and Pepsis have also made a commitment to make more new bottles from recycled bottles, and recycling technologies have improved enough that food-grade containers can be made from them. recycled content – not to mention states like California will. start requiring 15 percent post-consumer recycled resin in plastic bottles next year, rising to 50 percent by 2030 – the competition is getting tough.

Fashion is a small, small player in the rPET market. Collier said about 45% of the available rPET is for food and beverage containers, 45% for fiber and 10% for other applications. Of the fiber share, the overwhelming majority goes to carpets, making clothing fiber “quite small”, perhaps as little as 5 percent of the market. Thus, when a certain weight becomes necessary to secure it, fashion is not favored to win.

“The brands are very committed to using X% of the bottles, but when I use the term ‘commitments’ from the bottlers, yes they are making a public announcement but they are also going to the raw material suppliers and saying’ I’ll buy X number of tons or PET shavings or bottle flakes or whatever. They will come in and they will say ‘I’m buying this. I will make a contractual commitment for this. Not the kind of commitments that textile companies make, ”said Karla Magruder, founder of Accelerating Circularity, which has made accelerating recycling from textiles to textiles her mission. “Most brands don’t even really understand everything that this bottle has to go through and may not have a relationship with the fiber supplier, let alone the bottle collector, let alone anyone else.”

“If the bottles are absorbed by the bottle guys and they’re willing to pay [the premium], the market will sell it that way, ”she continued. “If the textile industry does not make the commitments, does not pay the supplement, it will be a demand that will not be met. “

Unifi, a fiber innovator that has dominated the rPET apparel market since 2007 with its Repreve polyester made from recycled plastic bottles, has seen recycled content become a “mega trend” in recent years, according to Jay Hertwig, Senior Vice President of the Company. marketing.

“There is no brand in the clothing space, in the automotive space, in the home and commercial furnishing space, and even in the industrial space that is not looking for alternatives. ecological or ecological products to produce, “he said. And despite what many feared a slowdown in sustainability commitments caused by a pandemic, the trend to convert virgin polyester to recycled polyester has not abated at all. “I haven’t seen this change any company’s commitments so far… Our Repreve product now accounts for almost 40% of our total sales and we believe it could reach 50% in the next two years. “

Because Unifi is vertically integrated and can secure its own bottles, the company was not challenged by the scarcity of PET for recycling, but one thing Hertwig said, with which others inside of this conversation rPET agree is that the key way The future will be to “go beyond the bottle”, that is, to turn more to textiles to recycle polyester or study other waste streams that the industry may not have considered yet.

“We’re going to have to recycle other materials – so we’re going to have to recycle polyester fabrics, we’re going to have to recycle other PET fabrics that we may not have traditionally thought of or that we didn’t know about there. was an available waste stream, “said Hertwig.” I think that will lead us into the future because, at the end of the day, if it comes to sustainability, there are a lot of other plastics and there are has a lot of other PET waste, it’s not just bottles, so if we can go beyond the bottle, I think there will be an opportunity to keep growing.

The challenges, however, will not be uncommon.

On the one hand, progress still needs to be made in recycling technologies. Mechanical recycling, which can shred fabrics and melt and remove plastic fibers like polyester, works on a commercial scale, but that scale is still not large enough to meet current demand. And chemical recycling, which uses chemicals to dissolve fibers in solvents and hopes to be able to separate cotton from a poly / cotton blend garment, for example, as Magruder said, “is still in its infancy. “, although new. innovations are currently “online”.

Even less technical than that, progress remains to be made to recover consumers’ clothes. And without it, the major commitments for recycled content by 2030 will remain in jeopardy.

“Post-consumer material, when we get it back, we get it one piece at a time because it’s stuff that people throw in the trash or send to a thrift store or send to Goodwill or put it in a bin. trash can for recycling. The equipment and technology to identify what’s in that garment doesn’t really exist. So even as these recycling technologies come to market on a scale that will meet everyone’s commitments, we still have a bunch of other things to do before we can get them the raw material that will run their processes, ”said Magruder.

“I have no doubts that it will be incredibly difficult to meet those commitments because they can’t do it with bottles – and they really shouldn’t do it with bottles. They should do it with textiles.

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