As the world’s petroleum resources grow more and more scarce, transportation won’t be the only sector in need of reinvention. The very clothes on our backs might have to change. The fashion industry relies heavily on petrol for the production of polyester fabric, the most dominant fibre in the world.
But a new solution may have been found here in Japan. The Teijin Group, a Japanese technological innovation company, has developed a method of recycling polyester products multiple times without deterioration of quality. So, rather than relying on petroleum to make polyester, Teijin turns used clothing into polyester fibre.
“Polyester is the biggest fibre produced in the world, so we’d like to contribute to recycling,” says Ricky Miyatake, general manager of environmental programs of Teijin Frontier, the Teijin Group’s fibre-products converting company. “Recycling means less waste, and less usage of new fossil resources … we’d like to expand the polyester recycling business to stabilize the world.”
It’s all part of “ECO CIRCLE”, a recycling system created in partnership with around 160 companies worldwide. Members such as outdoor clothing company Patagonia collect used polyester clothing, later shipping to Teijin’s chemical recycling plant in Matsuyama, Japan. Teijin then utilizes its chemical recycling technology to turn the used clothes into virgin-quality polyester fibres. These fibres are then used to make new clothing.
Teijin is not the first company in the world to recycle polyester. Material recycling is an established technology that converts PET bottles into polyester fibres. However, due to contaminants in bottles such as dyes and bleaches, the recycled fibre is of inferior quality compared to that made of petroleum and cannot be recycled again.
Teijin has solved this problem by removing additives from polyester products, in a process called chemical recycling.
“We go back to the molecular level of polyester raw material called DMT,” says Miyatake. “So the quality of this is the same as petroleum. We can make any kind of polyester fibres or textiles. Actually there are no limitations.”
The quality of Teijin’s recycled polyester products can be seen on the shelves of famous sportswear stores like Patagonia, Houdini, and Haglöfs. Most of ECO CIRCLE’s overseas member companies are, in fact, European.
“European people are more eco-conscious, I think,” laughs Miyatake.
And indeed the environmental benefit of such technology is what makes it so appealing. Compared to making new polyester from petroleum, chemically recycling polyester reduces both energy and CO2 emissions by about 80%. Of course, there are constraints for current wide-scale adoption of chemical recycling. Recycled polyester fibre is around 15-20% more expensive than fibre made of petroleum and there are limitations to how many times polyester can be recycled (around 5–10 times).
Although Teijin hopes to expand its technology worldwide, Miyatake seems doubtful due to the concentration of manufacturing in Asia.
“Of course, once we’ve collected and recycled the polyester into raw material, for example, in Europe, unfortunately there are no manufacturing places there,” he says. “Everybody asks Asian countries to manufacture products. Back and forth, back and forth. We generate so much CO2. It’s not good.”
At the moment, the benefits of chemically recycled polyester outweigh its negatives. And, as the world’s supply of petroleum dwindles, innovative solutions such as ECO CIRCLE will become increasingly necessary. In light of this, Teijin is opening a new chemical recycling plant in China, with plans to start operation at the end of this year. It is also looking into new applications for its current technology.
“Actually we can recycle almost all of the polyester products we are producing right now,” says Miyatake. “So not only clothing but of course we can supply the fibre (for) industrial use.”
There are even Japanese train cushions that have been made from recycled polyester. The possibilities are limitless.© Japan Today