Industry Case Study
Insights on companies on-the-ground
How Vertical Integration Opens Access to Hard-to-Recycle Plastic Inputs for Molecular Recycling
In November 2021, Closed Loop Partners released its latest report on molecular recycling, Transitioning to a Circular System for Plastics: Assessing Molecular Recycling Technologies in the United States and Canada. As part of this study, our team released a series of case studies meant to highlight best practices and lessons learned from molecular recycling companies advancing these technologies on-the-ground.
When existing infrastructure is unable to supply sufficient plastic inputs for molecular recycling technologies, vertically integrated systems can help ensure consistent inflow
Each year, 92 million tons of clothing and textile scrap are discarded worldwide (1). With the limited recycling and reuse options for these materials, most end up being incinerated or buried in landfills. While the technology to process a wide variety of textiles and polyester fabrics exists, the success of these operations is also dependent on the ability to effectively secure feedstock at the right specifications.
To combat this challenge, JEPLAN, a depolymerization technology company based in Japan, developed the BRING™ system, enabling the company to collect large quantities of discarded clothing, including polyester waste, which can then be fed into their molecular recycling technology process. This enables the company to produce Bis(hydroxyethyl) Terephthalate (BHET) flakes (intermediate) and recycled polyethylene terephthalate (rPET), which can be used to create PET packaging or polyester yarn, as part of the outputs of their Kitakyushu Hibikinada plant and their subsidiary, PET Refine Technology (PRT). The clothing made of the recycled polyester is then sold under the BRING™ clothing brand.
In Japan, JEPLAN has successfully connected consumers who are looking to donate and recycle their used clothing with manufacturers and businesses interested in sponsoring recycling and housing drop-off points. The BRING™ project works as a platform for sustainable apparel, with the cooperation of consumers and corporate partners such as Muji, Patagonia and the North Face, to recycle unwanted clothing and textiles. To date, JEPLAN has collected over 3,000 metric tons of used clothing under the BRING™ project, the equivalent of almost 15 million T-shirts. With an estimated 510,000 tons of clothing disposed of as waste in Japan annually (2), JEPLAN has a significant opportunity to grow.
By operating their own collection program, JEPLAN has greater control of feedstock inflow, as well as the sorting, separating and preparation of input for their system. However, since apparel and textiles are often blends of several types of fibers, such as polyester, cotton and wool, JEPLAN alone cannot recycle all the collected items. When the material arrives at JEPLAN’s facility, sorters determine which clothing and textiles can be reused, reworn or recycled. Some of the companies JEPLAN partners with are able to collect back their apparel or textiles and resell them secondhand, if they meet minimum quality requirements. Other materials are recycled through JEPLAN’s molecular recycling process, where possible. Today, 5% of the textiles collected have high-enough polyester content to be recycled by JEPLAN. This post-consumer polyester is shredded and densified, so that they meet the feedstock specifications. The feedstock is then depolymerized, cleaned and repolymerized as recycled textile grade PET resin. By vertically integrating their supply chain in this way, JEPLAN has been able to successfully gain direct access to a portion of their feedstock (3).
A circular system for textiles requires consistent infrastructure, reuse and recycling systems, as well as enabling technologies. Given that JEPLAN, through its BRING™ system, is committed to creating sustainable end-of-life options for their partners’ collected materials, they will require partnerships with a wide variety of companies that can provide solutions for the different materials. For situations like this, data and material tracing could streamline sorting systems, further facilitating the transport of discarded textiles and goods to companies who can appropriately provide sustainable end-of-life recovery options for these materials.
Recently, JEPLAN established a consortium that collects used PET bottles, with the goal to continuously recycle all PET bottles produced in Japan.
Other Collection Models
The supply chain for collecting and sorting textile waste at end-of-life is grossly underdeveloped, lacking commercially available collections and sortation infrastructure. In order for companies like JEPLAN to operate efficiently, investments will be required to establish organized systems to collect, sort and appropriately pre-process the materials.
On a broader level, policies that incentivize used material collection, including landfills bans and Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), can provide larger and more consistent quantities of recycled plastic inputs for molecular recycling companies. To further strengthen these collection systems, local laws and policy could play a role. Currently, there are a variety of programs that aim to improve material collection, including deposit refund schemes (DRS) and curbside collection. DRS levy a deposit when the product is sold, and then provide consumers with a refund of the deposit when the container or product is returned. This can encourage the collection of unwanted goods, prevent littering and contribute to higher rates of recycling (4). Investing in DRS infrastructure can also generate cleaner and more reliable feedstocks for recycling, to advance a more sustainable future that keeps a greater volume and variety of materials in circulation. However, while DRS can enable lower contamination of materials, at this point, lower participation rates and therefore lower volumes of collection can take place. This leads to high unit economics for collection, decreasing incentives to shift toward recycled inputs.
Curbside collection, on the other hand, has been implemented in a number of communities across the United States. In Illinois, the City of Elgin has recently implemented curbside textile collections, increasing access and convenience for textile recycling (5). Residents of Elgin can use the Simple Recycling curbside municipal recycling service, which collects items including clothing, shoes, small appliances, lamps and more. Residents can request orange Simple Recycling bags online, to fill and leave on their curb for the city to pick up on garbage collection days. While the convenience of this option can lead to higher participation rates and therefore higher volumes of textile collected, this may also lead to higher contamination rates depending on how items are sorted or placed in curbside collection bins or bags.
In addition to municipal collection programs, private companies have also developed services to collect residential waste, giving communities another way to send out recyclable items and further increase recycling rates. Retrievr, a Closed Loop Partners portfolio company operating in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, developed an on demand clothing & electronics recycling service, collecting clothing and electronic waste directly from residential doorsteps and ensuring the materials collected are responsibly recycled or resold.
Call to Action
In markets where molecular recycling companies are unable to access sufficient amounts of plastics as input for their technology process, vertically integrated systems within companies, such as JEPLAN’s, can enable better control of feedstock inflow. By managing the entire process from collection to processing, molecular recycling companies can better ensure the quality of materials received, which can determine the quality of output produced by their technology.
 BBC. “Why clothes are so hard to recycle”. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200710-why-clothes-are-so-hard-to-recycle
Japan Times. “Japan looks to reduce environmental burdens of its fashion industry”. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/05/06/business/economy-business/environment-emissions-fashion-japan/
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