Teijin and a Chinese partner will start construction in China this month of a plant that will chemically recycle used polyester fiber and rebuild it into new fiber. The facility’s primary raw material will be fiber scraps as well as worn-out polyester clothing including uniforms collected in the city of Shaoxing from its police and military.
Polyester produced in such a manner is more expensive than virgin polyester or polyester made by melting down used soda bottles. But Teijin is confident that the Chinese venture can sell its recycled fiber at a premium price to name-brand companies eager to bolster their green credentials. As the world’s largest producer of clothing, China is a promising market.
“Our polyester is eco-friendly, but that is only part of the story,” says Nobuyoshi Miyasaka, assistant to the general manager of Teijin’s advanced fibers and composites business. “The recycled polyester is of the same quality as petroleum-derived fiber, so there is no compromise at all in terms of how it feels or how it looks.”
Construction of the plant in China represents the expansion of an existing business for Teijin, which for the past decade has operated a 10,000-metric-ton-per-year polyester depolymerization facility in Matsuyama, Japan. One of the company’s main customers is Patagonia, a high-end sportswear maker that runs multiple sustainability programs.
With an annual capacity of 20,000 metric tons, the new plant will be located in Shaoxing, Zhejiang province. The plant will be owned by Zhejiang Jiaren New Materials, a joint venture held 49% by Teijin and 51% by China’s Jinggong Holding Group. Teijin expects that Jiaren will eventually generate sufficient sales to warrant expanding capacity to 70,000 metric tons per year.
The Matsuyama and Shaoxing plants are designed differently, Miyasaka says. The Japanese plant recovers dimethyl terephthalate and ethylene glycol, the two key polyester raw materials, but does not convert them into polyester. The China plant will produce polyester, but for reasons of efficiency, it will burn ethylene glycol as it’s recovered to power the recycling plant. Teijin-sponsored studies show that overall, both plants have, or will have, a positive environmental contribution when emissions, materials consumption, and value of output are calculated.
Chinese apparel brands that buy recycled fiber from Jiaren and agree to take back worn-out apparel after its useful life will be able to sell clothes bearing a Teijin-designed Eco Circle label telling shoppers that at least 80% of the fabric in a garment is recycled.
The Chinese military and police should be eager to supply their used uniforms if needed, Miyasaka says, because for security reasons, they need to be destroyed when retired. Incidentally, Miyasaka notes that Teijin did not suffer any backlash this fall when anti-Japan protests broke out throughout China. When Miyasaka attended a groundbreaking ceremony for the Jiaren plant last month, he was warmly welcomed by the mayor of Shaoxing, he recalls.
It’s difficult to build a profitable business from recycling polyester, cautions Robert Peoples, executive director of Carpet America Recovery Effort, a U.S. industry group promoting carpet recycling. Virgin polyester will remain significantly cheaper than the recycled product because the industry is in a chronic state of overcapacity.
Even without overcapacity, producing virgin polyester is more straightforward, Peoples says. Recycling used fiber involves collection, cleaning, crushing, depolymerizing, and finally repolymerizing. When it’s all done, Teijin must secure buyers who are willing to pay a premium. “They wouldn’t be doing this if they did not feel there is a market, but it’s not a no-brainer,” he says.
Recycled polyester is likely to remain a niche product for many years, Peoples adds. There is plenty of installed capacity for producing virgin polyester, and major producers plan to add more.
For Teijin, niches have become a core business. In 1980, Teijin was among the world’s 10 largest polyester producers, Miyasaka says. But in the years that followed, the company fell in global rankings because it decided not to compete in commodity fibers against Indian and Chinese firms that were investing vast sums in capacity expansions. Instead, Teijin turned toward smaller markets or technologically challenging areas such as carbon composites and other high-performance fibers and materials.
The plant that Jiaren is building in China implements standard depolymerization as well as proprietary Teijin technologies for removing dyes and impurities. But Teijin’s main competitive advantage, he adds, lies in having figured out a viable business plan for collecting used clothing throughout China and marketing recycled fiber at a premium price. “It’s a whole package. We’re not just setting up a chemical plant in China.”