According to figures, nearly 90% of the 33 million workwear garments supplied annually end up in landfills or are incinerated. Many of these items are made from polyester, a plastic based fabric and industry staple that uses an estimated 342 million barrels of oil every year to make.
Polyester has a limited product lifetime, and with little to no infrastructure for recycling, workwear has a high social and environmental impact.
Safety products and services company, Arco, has committed seed funding to partner with start-up company Stuff4Life to support the research and development of a closed-loop, circular economy solution for polyester workwear.
“The impact of polyester as a linear make-use-dispose garment is significant, but by recycling it those impacts can be substantially reduced whilst keeping all the performance benefits from using synthetic fibres.”
The funding will enable Stuff4Life to commission a chemical recycling demonstration plant in collaboration with Teesside University, bringing onboard its academic experts, world-leading research capabilities and state of-the-art facilities.
“Successfully recycling polyester and establishing an onshore UK supply chain would reduce the industry’s dependency on fossil fuels and find value in waste.”
The plant will recover the base compound terephthalic acid (TPA), used in the production of polyester fabric, from recycled workwear. The recovered TPA will then be reincorporated into various manufacturing processes, with the goal being to manufacture new polyester to deliver a PPE for life opportunity in the UK.
As part of the trial phase, Arco and Stuff4Life will collect, shred, and transport up to six tonnes of end-of-line polyester, and polyester mix, garments. The garments will then be recycled using chemical processes. Several batches of garments with different levels of polyester content will be put through the process and the results analysed, including the TPA quality.
“The humble hi-vis is an essential item for everyone working in hazardous environments, from mending roads and collecting bins to saving people at sea or up mountains. The impact of polyester as a linear make-use-dispose garment is significant, but by recycling it those impacts can be substantially reduced whilst keeping all the performance benefits from using synthetic fibres. We’re excited to be working on such an important project with the country’s leading safety company.”
If the initiative is successful, Arco and Stuff4Life will be able to support a circular economy for workwear. This would see the TPA created through the chemical recycling activity sold back into the virgin polyester manufacturing process, with volumes externally audited and validated.