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Chasing the dream of endless recyclability

Turning plastic water bottles into fiber is one thing. But what happens when that fiber wears out?


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This story originally appeared in the Winter ’21 edition of our print magazine. Read the full issue here.

Reduce, reuse, recycle: We all learned the three Rs of environmentally conscious consumerism in third grade, but remembering them and implementing them have proved very different tasks. Now, long after elementary school graduation, the outdoor industry is still trying to put all three into practice. For years, companies have been looking to reduce their use of virgin materials, making gear out of recycled bottles and factory scraps, and manufacturing apparel to sustainability certification standards. Programs like Patagonia’s Worn Wear and The North Face’s Renewed line take used gear and repair or remake it into new clothing, checking the “reuse” box.

But at some point, those boots have too many holes to fix, the jacket is in tatters, and another night in that sleeping bag is guaranteed to induce hypothermia. That’s where the third R comes in. And so far, recycling outdoor gear has been an elusive target.

Read more: True sustainability means less production

“The end of life is still a really challenging piece,” says Jessie Curry, sustainable business manager at the Outdoor Industry Association. The problem: The complex materials necessary for high performance are also what make gear and apparel difficult to fully recycle.

But this year has seen some of the first signs of hope as the industry sets its sights on cutting down its waste footprint.

But at some point, those boots have too many holes to fix, the jacket is in tatters, and another night in that sleeping bag is guaranteed to induce hypothermia.

Monster materials

Nicole Basset co-founded The Renewal Workshop in Portland, Oregon, in 2015 to take in well-used apparel and home goods, repairing them enough to be resold or turn them into something new. After working on sustainability initiatives for Patagonia and prAna, she now counts The North Face among her clients (The Renewal Workshop supports the Renewed line). Competitor company Trove similarly manages Patagonia’s Worn Wear program.

The vast majority of textiles that end up in landfills could actually be repaired or re-created and sold, Basset noted in her company’s Leading Circular report, released last September. “It’s not like all of those efforts [to repair or remake apparel] have been exhausted,” she says. But gear can’t be rebuilt indefinitely—her report found that 18 percent of textiles overall have no avenues for revival: “Textile recycling options are extremely limited today.”

Read more: How Plastic Impact Alliance member Big Agnes continues to push itself on the sustainability front

Allied Feather + Down has been recycling some of the feathers it gets back from returned bedding since 2011. “Down is the easiest thing to recycle on its own,” says President Daniel Uretsky. But, he adds, things get tricky when it comes to more complex products, like jackets, where stitching and baffles make recapturing the small amount of down inside inefficient.

Recycling only gets more complicated from there. The biggest problem is blended materials: Think nylon coated with polyurethane, wool mixed with elastane, and common cotton-polyester blends. The innovations that have made gear like baselayers and shells warm, breathable, and waterproof also make them very difficult to recycle. “We call them hybrid monster materials,” says Basset. She describes manufacturing like baking a cake: You mix together flour, sugar, vanilla, an egg, and the rest of the ingredients. Then the process of baking transforms those ingredients. “You can’t deconstruct it back to an egg, flour, sugar, and vanilla, because you’ve created something new,” she says. “You don’t think, ‘Oh, I’m going to need the egg back at the end of this.’”

But while complex textile recycling is in its infancy, some pioneers are making progress. In January 2020, Patagonia announced that its investment arm, Tin Shed Ventures, would join three other partners in funding a textile recycling company called Tyton BioSciences. The company, which has since changed its name to Circ, has developed the ability to recycle any cotton-polyester blend.

COO Conor Hartman says that when the company was founded in 2011, it focused on biofuels. But about three years ago, a partner asked if their technology could be repurposed for textiles. “We then refocused our company on the fashion industry, and that led to the rebranding.”

According to Hartman, one of the challenges of recycling textiles made from multiple components is being able to extract the different fibers and chemicals without breaking anything down. He describes Circ’s solution as something like “a household pressure cooker, and we’ve got a really fancy one that can target polyester while not targeting cotton.” As a result, Circ can separate the two materials and re-create the polyester and cotton fibers for reuse.

With a technology solution in place, the next problem is scaling up. Hartman says he expects the first pilot products made with their recycled materials to be out later this year. A similar blended textile recycling company, Stockholm-based Renewcell, needed about five years to get its first garments into production, says Brand Manager Nora Eslander. Last March, the company (which handles majority-cotton blends only) released a recycled cotton dress with H&M.

While recycling cotton-poly blends would take a big bite out of the apparel industry’s overall waste problem, the materials in more technical apparel are, as of yet, unrecyclable. Hartman says that’s his company’s next goal. “We’re very much going to other fiber types that are in the clothes that all of us wear every day,” he says, adding that Circ sees market demand for their technology “both from a business and an environmental standpoint.”

Planning for the end

Both Hartman and Eslander say that while there is exciting potential for recycling more complex fabrics on the horizon, gear makers need to do their part by designing products that are easier to break down at the end of their lives. Salomon is making headway: In Spring 2021, runners will be able to purchase the Salomon Index.01, a recyclable running shoe.

“Today, when it comes to the end of life of shoes, most of them are burned or put in a landfill,” says Olivier Mouzin, Salomon’s footwear sustainability manager. But the polyester used in the Index.01’s upper, tongue, laces, and foam can be recycled into polyester yarn and reused. Most of the rest is made from thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU), which Salomon plans to recapture and use as a component in ski boots planned for release in 2022. (The shoe’s liner is the only part that can’t currently be recycled.)

Mouzin adds that part of the challenge isn’t just the technology, but the logistics of getting the shoes to the proper recyclers. If you burn more resources just trying to transport materials for recycling than you would tapping virgin ingredients, you lose any environmental gains. Salomon is tackling the problem by partnering with a network of recycling companies worldwide. After Index.01 owners have finished their last mile, they can print out a shipping label to send the shoes to the one closest to them.

Read more: Behind one brand’s ambitious goal to be plastic free by 2023

For now, the next step is the end of the line: The molded plastic boots Salomon plans to make from the shoes won’t be recyclable themselves. JY Audouard, who works with Salomon’s Ski Boot Research and Development division, says the challenge is separating out the multiple plastic and metal components. He adds that the company is looking at ways to collect used boots from ski resorts and ultimately disassemble them en masse for recycling, as well as investigating options for making boots that can be disassembled more easily.

Mouzin acknowledges that the Index.01 is just a first step, but says he’s excited about the increased interest in recycling from the industry as a whole. “In most cases, companies in our industry, and most industries, are always competing heavily against each other,” he says. “In the case of sustainability, that competition is good for the environment because we’re all trying to improve on what is out there and what we have always done. But to progress, we will have to work together to some degree and keep pushing the possibilities.”