From waste to fashion: Recycling polyester

In the project ‘From Waste to Fashion’ Axfoundation, Axel Johnson International and Filippa K took on an ambitious goal: to take industrial polyester waste and give it a new life as recycled material in the world of fashion. The project showed the potential for used lashings and lifting slings to be recycled and become a resource in an apparel value chain. But systemic challenges hindered the scaling of the solution from pilot to a circular business model on industrial scale. The project was carried out from 2018 to 2021.

The Issue

Economic development is driving increased demand for plastics. But its linear production, use and disposal impose severely negative impacts on society and the environment. In a report from 2021, WWF concludes that the cost of plastic to the environment and society is at least 10 times higher than the market price paid by primary plastics producers. 

Every year over 3 300 tons of polyester transportation and lifting products from the industry group Axel Johnson International enter the global market. The products are made of high-strength industrial polyester to endure heavy lifts and security. However, these products have a short lifespan, and in most cases, they are only used once or a couple of times before they get discarded due to logistics, safety, or insurance reasons. Because of the low price of virgin polyester together with the challenges of recycling these strong materials with today’s conventional methods, the incentives to utilize the used products are low.  

At the same time, there is an increasing demand for recycled polyester from the fashion and textile industry. Today, companies are heavily dependent on virgin plastics, with polyester having a market share of 51.5 per cent of the total global fibre production.

From waste to fashion: Instead of burning straps consisting of 100 percent polyester, they can be turned into PET pellets used in for examples buttons.

From waste to fashion: Instead of burning straps consisting of 100 percent polyester, they can be turned into PET pellets used in for examples buttons.

“Worn-out straps and round slings for transport and heavy lifting might seem a world away from fashion, but the two industries have one thing in common: the use of virgin polyester as a key material. Due to the significant volumes of discarded polyester and an increasing demand for recycled polyester in fashion, we see great potential in a larger scale circular model.” Hanna Skoog, Program Director, Circular Economy, Axfoundation

Our Solution

In the project From Waste to Fashion, the goal was to develop a new ecosystem for polyester where industrial polyester waste would be recycled and used as input material in the fashion industry, and ultimately, other sectors. This would enable a reduction of waste from polyester transportation and lifting products as well as reducing the use of virgin polyester in fashion. 

Firstly, Axfoundation mapped the demand for recycled polyester among Swedish fashion and outdoor brands to better understand the companies’ processes of sourcing recycled polyester and their thoughts on the future of materials. 

After validating the demand for an alternative feedstock for recycled polyester, the next step was to evaluate the recyclability of the feedstock. The textile used for the transportation and lifting products from Axel Johnson International is made from 100% high-strength industrial polyester and the used products are often contaminated with oil and dirt. The project evaluated different methods for both mechanical and chemical recycling. 

After proving the materials’ recyclability, the project aimed to demonstrate the scalability and business case in utilizing the polyester waste streams.  

Finally, the project decided to participate in the ‘Smart Loops’ research project. This research project, led by IVL, aimed to evaluate whether it is possible to have a specific collection and get smaller, but cleaner material streams, so-called “Smart loops” in Sweden. The results from the research project can be found here.  

Results

The interviewed fashion and outdoor brands showed a big interest in the project and its future results. A common denominator was the need to find new feedstocks for recycled polyester beyond PET bottles. 

The project managed to develop a successful proof of concept together with Filippa K and their trim supplier in 2018: Industrial polyester waste was made into prototype buttons and buckles through a process of mechanic recycling. The material was also evaluated by the Hong Kong Research Institute of Apparel and Fashion to examine the potential for fibre-to-fibre recycling. 

In parallel with the tests of mechanical recycling, the project participated in a RISE initiative, testing chemically recycling of polyester transportation and lifting products by depolymerization. Contaminated transportation and lifting products were successfully recycled, on small scale, to virgin quality rPET. An early LCA analysis also suggested that the recycled PET had a 72 % lower CO impact than virgin polyester. 

The business modelling showed that the volumes of polyester products distributed every year by Axel Johnson International’s companies alone equals three per cent of the consumer plastic packages collected in Sweden yearly. The financial loss from not utilizing these materials was estimated at 13 – 28 million SEK. From an environmental point of view, the analysis concluded that 5.2 tons of COe would be saved per ton of virgin polyester that is replaced with recycled polyester.  

As a result of the business modelling, the project reached out to several key downstream actors in logistics and recycling to team up to collect and prepare the waste materials for recycling. Unfortunately, these dialogues did not move forward since the volumes were considered too small for them to be profitable to recycle. 

In the first phase, the project showed the potential for industrial polyester to be recycled and become a resource in an apparel value chain. But in the second phase, systemic challenges related to the availability of large-scale recycling technologies suitable for high strength and contaminated industrial polyester, reverse logistics, partnerships, and the right market conditions hindered the scaling of the solution.  

The project identified five key levers to enable a circular business model for industrial polyester: 

  1. Innovation and scaling of recycling technologies
  2. Sustainable solutions for reverse logistics
  3. Information about the composition and recyclability of secondary materials
  4. Partnership
  5. Right economic conditions for the secondary raw material market
     

The results and lessons learned have been summarized in this report.  

Partners

Filippa K,Axel Johnson International, IVL Swedish Environmental Institute 

Projects within Circular Economy