April 30, 2006


"Teijin Group's "Semi-Perpetual" Fabric Recycling Revolutionizes the Apparel Industry"

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.44 (April 2006)

How many kinds of fabrics do you see around you? Take clothing for example. There daily wear, fashion wear, suits and uniforms for work, outerwear to protect us from water and cold, water-repellant sports clothes, and so on. These are made of natural and/or synthetic fabrics. Other items such as futons and mattresses, bags, carpets, and shoes also require various types of fabric. If you give this a little thought, you will realize that fabrics are essential materials that support our lives in the modern world.

Where do these fabrics go after use? Of 2.35 million tons of fabrics that were consumed in Japan in 2003, 2.1 million tons (89 percent) were disposed of as waste from homes and corporations, and 1.9 million tons (80 percent) of the total consumption ended up incinerated or in the landfill. Although products containing fabrics can be found in second-hand shops, items sold as used clothes, used as rags, or converted into felt account for only about 10 percent of total amount of fabric discarded.

"These fabrics produce carbon dioxide when burned. Buttons, fasteners, dies may generate toxic chemicals when burned. But above all, the whole idea of throwing away anything made from precious fossil fuel resources is ridiculous," says Mr. Akihiro Suzuoka, the Teijin Group's Corporate Officer in charge of recycling, who is responsible for building a framework for recycling fabric materials.

Teijin, Ltd. is a corporate group that has seven core businesses: polyester fibers, industrial fibers, fiber products marketing, films, plastics, medicines and pharmaceuticals, and information and technology. The group has some 19,000 workers in the 159 companies in more than 10 countries covering Asia, Europe and North America. It had sales of 908.4 billion yen (about U.S.$7.8 billion) and operating profits of 51.9 billion yen (about U.S.$440 million) in fiscal 2004.

If industries like the electrical or automotive products, can have a legal framework for recycling in Japan, why not the textile industry? Mr. Suzuoka gives three reasons for this: (1) disposal of fabrics by burning is relatively easy, (2) fashionable clothes are difficult to recycle because of the variety of materials used, and (3) a comprehensive framework for recycling is hard to establish due to the nature of an industry consisting mostly of small businesses. Without waiting for the development of legal regulations, Teijin is now aiming to build a chemical recycling system that enables the production of high-quality fabrics based on the idea of "semi-perpetual" utilization of fiber materials.

Semi-perpetual recycling of high-quality products

Let's take a look at one such recycling system at work. Patagonia, an American supplier of outdoor gear, annually sells 1.3 million pieces of "Capilene"* underwear, one of its major products. In cooperation with Teijin, Patagonia has built a system in which worn-out Capilene underwear placed in stores' return boxes will be recycled back into the same quality of Capilene material.
* Capilene is a registered trademark of Patagonia.

Nishikawa Sangyo Co., a futon manufacturer, and Takashimaya, Japan's prestigious department store chain, once provided a service for a limited time to collect old futons free of charge from customers who purchased a new one, using Teijin's recycling system. The collected futons were sorted according to material contained, and polyester fiber materials are being recycled into high-quality fiber for uniforms, dress shirts and other products.

The above systems use chemical recycling technologies to decompose the materials into molecules by chemical reaction and restore the original quality, unlike material recycling based on thermal melting. The latter method does not remove foreign substances and thus cannot avoid the deterioration of material quality; in the end, these materials have to be burned and landfilled. On the other hand, the chemical method can produces polyester material of the same quality with only 10 percent weight loss from removing foreign substances such as dyes and buttons, in the case of 100-percent polyester clothes.

Moreover, the removed substances can be used in the production of cement. A trial calculation by Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry shows that, throughout the entire life cycle, this recycling system uses 20 percent less energy and reduces carbon dioxide emissions by half compared with the case when the fabrics are made directly from crude oil. The system not only reduces the input of new natural resources, but also uses the existing materials semi-perpetually.

This recycling technology, which Teijin calls "fiber-to-fiber" recycling, can recover high-purity polyester having the same or even better quality than those made from petroleum. The company succeeded in the technology development in 2000 and established the recycling operations in 2002. It further launched the "ECO CIRCLE" scheme to recycle polyester materials beyond the Teijin group, to meet challenges such as collection system establishment and the mixture of different materials. Under the scheme, it registers interested companies as members and cooperates with them to develop and manufacture products made of recyclable materials, collect used clothes, and recycle them into new products.

Currently 71 apparel companies in Japan and abroad participate in this scheme, and are collecting and recycling various products, including uniforms and other items of clothing, futons and industrial materials. This closed-loop recycling system received a Good Design Award 2005 (New Frontier Design Category), along with other awards, including the 34th Japan Industrial Technology Award (Prime Minister's Award), the Minister of the Environment's Award for Global Warming Mitigation, the Global 100-Eco Tech Award, and the 3rd Japan Environmental Management Award, for the corporate philosophy to contribute to building a recycling-oriented society.

Towards Zero Waste, Zero Chemical Emissions, and Zero Energy Loss

As a company that manufactures various products in various fields, how large is its impact on the environment? "The Teijin Group's operations affect the environment negatively in two ways. Namely, its products use raw materials and energy, and its production processes generate chemical substances and industrial waste. The disposal of synthetic fibers, films, resin and other products after use is also harmful to the environment," the company admits in one of its reports. Aiming to reduce the group's total impacts on the environment, Teijin makes an effort to address them unflinchingly, by continuous measurement and disclosure of information.

To put into action its corporate philosophy which states, "We place the highest priority on safety and the preservation of our natural environment," the company announced in 1992 a more specific action plan called the "Teijin Group Global Environment Charter." The group has set two ultimate goals. One is "Challenge Zero," which consists of four pillars: (1) zero emissions (of chemical substances), (2) zero energy loss, (3) zero waste, and (4) zero accidents. "Being aware of the current of the times, we as a company must achieve this goal to survive in the world," Suzuoka believes. Of special note is that the company sets absolute reduction goals, while aiming to develop their businesses. In fact, the carbon dioxide emissions of the group have been decreasing since 1998, and in 2005 the group achieved a 50 percent drop in final disposal volumes from fiscal 1998.

Creation of Collaborative Networks

The second ultimate goal is "Promotion of Recycling." Teijin is seeking to establish a recycling-oriented society by introducing highly advanced recycling technologies. In particular, the company has been developing various technologies and systems, including ECO CIRCLE, which effectively uses the fiber-to-fiber recycling technology described above.

Teijin has also developed what it calls "bottle-to-bottle" recycling technology, the world's first closed plastic recycling technology that enables the chemical recycling of collected plastic bottles into high-purity plastic bottle resin. The recycling operations, started in 2003, can recycle about 62,000 tons of used plastic bottles (about 2 billion 500-milliliter plastic bottles) into 50,000 tons of resin each year. While asking for consumers' cooperation to ensure separation of items for recycling collection, Teijin has been promoting this activity in collaboration with municipalities and recycling companies.

Teijin has been challenging itself to establish recycling systems supported by the development of these technologies. What has been achieved so far? And what should be done in the future? Suzuoka explains, "Society has only limited potential to build a truly sustainable society if the activities of participants are not coordinated. It is necessary to create a comprehensive network involving industries, governments, academia, non-profit and non-governmental organizations and consumers."

As one of these activities, Teijin established in 2005 a group it called CLUB-E2 (with "E2" representing "ecology" and "economy") together with sporting goods makers. Seeking to achieve environmental protection as well as business growth in the area of school and gym uniforms, the group members collaborate to appeal for and increase awareness of their cause, and to demand deregulation. In particular, they are promoting the expansion of environmentally friendly products and recycling systems in school and apparel businesses. The first study meeting was joined by 39 participants from 23 companies to share their ideas for system development. Teijin hopes to expand this type of collaboration in various business categories.

Suzuoka says, "It is tough work for a company to establish such a collaborative infrastructure where its businesses are economically viable in the long run. However, we believe that systems like this will be indispensable for society in the future." Through fiber production, Teijin is taking on the challenge, using its technological prowess to create a sustainable society, in ways that extend far beyond its corporate boundaries. There is surely more to come from Teijin in the future.

(Staff writer Kazunori Kobayashi)