TOKYO — Improved technology has led to a significant rise in textile recycling programs in Japan, according to a new study.
Every year in Japan an estimated two million metric tons, or 4.4 billion pounds, of used textile goods are discharged from homes and factories as waste and clothing represents about half of the total. Roughly 260,000 tons, or 13 percent of the total, are being recycled.
The report from the Japan Chemical Fibers Association found that the majority of waste textiles are being recycled using conventional methods that have been in practice for years. Recovered textile products are either exported as second-hand clothes to Asian markets, cut into small pieces for use as duster cloth in factories or reused in making felt and gloves.
Japan’s interest in becoming a sustainable society has grown in recent years, prompting textile and apparel manufacturers, as well as retailers, to focus more effort on product recycling. Initiatives are anticipated from major fiber producers here such as Teijin Ltd., Toray Industries Inc., Kuraray, Toyobo, Asahi Kasei, Unitika and Mitsubishi Rayon. It’s not completely new territory. Teijin, for example, began recycling polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, plastic bottles more than a decade ago.
The association said the seven fiber producers recycled 29,500 metric tons, or 65 million pounds, of PET bottles in fiscal 2006, the latest year for which industry statistics are available. This represents almost double the level of recycling in 2001. The bottles are turned into PET resin, which is raw material for polyester fibers and bottles.
Japanese fiber producers use three major methods of recycling: chemical, melting and thermal. Teijin has been a front-runner in the field and operates a textile-to-textile, bottle-to-bottle and film-to-film chemical recycling facility at its plant in Matsuyama. The company began producing polyester fleece from recycled PET bottles as early as 1993.
The Teijin facility, with a combined annual capacity estimated to be 72,000 tons, or 158 million pounds, features an advanced technology that transforms or reduces polyester and polyester-blend apparel, PET bottles and polyester films into high-purity terephthalate dimethyl, or DMT. The reproduced DMT is of the same quality as virgin DMT material derived directly from oil. The company said its chemical recycling process cuts energy consumption by 84 percent and reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 77 percent compared with producing DMT from oil.
Toray, which had been promoting recycling programs for polyester and acrylic textile products for years, developed a technology for chemical recycling of nylon 6 in 1996. Toray’s recycling program, which covers not only nylons but polyesters, polyester blends and other fibers, involves an estimated 16,000 tons, or 35.2 million pounds, in annual capacity. Among the main recycled products are nylon 6 uniforms and nylon 6 industrial-use nets.
Kuraray Co. has launched a thermal recycling project in collaboration with Nippon Steel Corp. and Yamato Transport Co., a national trucking company. Kuraray collects uniforms and other worn-out clothing from companies and government offices. The waste is transported to Kuraray’s processing center, where it is crushed into pieces and then delivered to a Nippon Steel mill to be used as hydrocarbon oil and coking gas. The plan is to recycle about 1,000 metric tons, or 2.2 million pounds, of materials, equivalent to one million units of apparel this year.
Retailer Uniqlo, operated by Fast Retailing Co. and the largest casualwear manufacturer-retailer in Japan, is promoting recycling by collecting used Uniqlo clothes from customers at all of its stores in Japan twice a year. In its latest campaign last March, Uniqlo said it collected some 910,000 units of clothing, 6.5 times more than the 140,000 units it received in its first campaign in September 2006. A company spokesman said 92 percent of the collected goods will be shipped to refugee camps in Asia and Africa this year through the United Nations, with 6 percent to be recycled into electric power and 1 percent into heat-insulation and other materials.
The association report points out that the industry will have to resolve as least four major problems. First, the existing recycling law gives cities and other local governments the power to handle collection and disposal of wastes, putting restraints on businesses trying to broaden their recycling activities. The study also noted that Japan’s textile and apparel distribution market involves many small businesses. The level of imported apparel has been rising steadily, and the variety of materials, accessories and processing makes it difficult to develop a uniform method of recycling.
The latest recycling law went into effect in 2001. The legislation covers segments of industry such as packaging containers, consumer electronics, food, construction material and automobiles. But so far it has not been extended to textiles and apparel.