Recycling Journey

Photography by Kazufumi Shimoyashiki, Yoshio Kato (shirts)
Self styling by Fumiko Aoyagi
Hair & Makeup by Haruka Morishita Editing & Text by Kyosuke Nitta

This year marks the start of a joint initiative with Toray Industries to produce recycled down as well as DRY-EX sourced from PET bottles. What role can we play in a sustainable future?
Let’s peek behind the scenes and see how recycled clothing is produced.

Keeping the Clothes We Make
from Ending up in Landfills

Have you heard about the idea of a circular economy? Endorsed by the EU, this new economic model advocates for the cyclical use of resources, minimizing waste, and reducing carbon emissions for the sake of the environment. To join the cause and help create a more sustainable future, UNIQLO has developed a down recycling program, launching this fall.Conventional down recycling focuses on removing and reusing down from comforters, but UNIQLO is taking a vastly different approach. Collecting any down jacket made by us, we’ll remove the down and process it for use in new down merchandise. Not in small quantities, but on a scale of tens of thousands of garments, perhaps the first such effort in history. It’s taken six years for this plan to reach fruition. Toray Industries, the advanced materials manufacturer that helped develop Ultra Light Down, began tests with recycled down in 2014 and officially launched the project in 2017.

Down products collected at UNIQLO locations throughout Japan are shipped to Toray’s Seta Factory in Shiga Prefecture. Each box contains about twenty-five items. The gigantic warehouse is packed with countless boxes, nearly 80% of which contain Ultra Light Down. Upon arrival, each item is searched by staff who check the pockets, then inspected again by a metal detector in search of any foreign objects.

Its unprecedented nature meant a slew of questions, two major challenges in particular. First, was collecting enough down actually possible? Having collected used clothing for refugees at donation boxes in our stores around the world since 2006, UNIQLO had worked out the logistics, but until we set up the new bins, we had no way of knowing whether people would donate, and no guarantees of success. Still, we saw the risk as an investment in the future, and have been spreading the word throughout Japan since September of last year. As a result, by February 2020 we had collected around 620,000 garments. Down jackets arrived from all over the country.

The Sustainable Future Envisioned by Toray and UNIQLO

Apart from collection, there was another obstacle we needed to find a way around. How would we efficiently remove the down from the clothes we collected? Unlike down comforters, which are easily cut open, Ultra Light Down has a complex construction involving ultra-thin nylon, stitching, polymer fasteners, metal zipper pulls, and product tags, while the panels that contain the down are far from simple. Some feared the only option was manual removal, which is not only inefficient, but poses a health risk and requires workers to wear masks and goggles to prevent ingestion of the airborne down released by cutting. Resolved to start from scratch, in 2018 we entrusted the engineering development center at Toray, responsible for creating their production equipment, with the design of an automated system for extracting down in the quickest, most efficient, and most productive manner possible.

Down products collected at UNIQLO locations throughout Japan are shipped to Toray’s Seta Factory in Shiga Prefecture. Each box contains about twenty-five items. The gigantic warehouse is packed with countless boxes, nearly 80% of which contain Ultra Light Down. Upon arrival, each item is searched by staff who check the pockets, then inspected again by a metal detector in search of any foreign objects.

Two years later, upon receiving word that the machine had passed the final test and was commencing operation, we visited Toray’s Seta Factory in Shiga Prefecture, where the newly finished down recycling machine was hammering away. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the process is the elegant simplicity with which it cuts and sorts. After being set on a conveyor belt, the garment is cut into bands, which are then mixed inside an agitator while being blown with air from top and bottom, to work the down free. Removal is complete in just under two minutes. The simplicity obscures the enormity of the achievement, but Toray’s technical excellence comes alive in tiny details unseen to the naked eye, like the use of TORAYCA (carbon fiber) technology in the cutting blade, which slices through materials of vastly different hardnesses, and the determination of optimal mixing speeds and airflow for extracting down with minimal loss. Once compressed, the down is washed in a cleaning facility, restoring the fill power (an indicator of lightness and warmth) to essentially original levels. From there, it can be transformed into new products.

Our first such model will be released through Uniqlo U. It’s fascinating to consider that somewhere in the quilted down are fibers of somebody’s favorite jacket. From one garment to another--these little actions will lead us to the clothing of tomorrow.

Ultra Light Down is set on a conveyor belt. To ensure optimum cutting, the garment is folded one arm over the other.
In passing through the cutting machine, the garment is cut into bands in the blink of an eye. To get this far takes thirty seconds.
Since cutting causes the down to be airborne, the conveyor belt is closed off at this stage by a clear, high-visibility cover.
How Down Recycling Machine Works
Mixed inside a giant agitator and hit with variable air currents, the down is separated and sent up, while all other materials are sent down.
The nylon fabric, fasteners and zipper pulls separate beautifully. Preventing down from adhering to the fabric posed a challenge.
The extracted down is neither stained nor matted, having been protected by the fabric. Here the down is washed again.

Referencing the liners of military surplus coats, this Recycled Down Jacket from Uniqlo U has a distinctive wavy quilting pattern and thick ribbed cuffs. Unisex. Available in sizes XS~XXL. Planned for Fall 2020.

Recycled Down Jacket (Uniqlo U)
W's Corduroy Stand Collar Long Sleeve Dress (Uniqlo U)
W's Side Gore Short Boots

Fumiko Aoyagi

Born in Tokyo. A model and actress, Fumiko Aoyagi has drawn attention for her smart outfits on StyleHint, the UNIQLO app for discovering new styles. Seeing down recycling in action for the first time, she could barely contain her curiosity. Trying on the new Recycled Down Jacket, she says “I feel best wearing things a little oversized.”

Recycling
Journey

Athletes wearing items made from recycled polyester hit the courts this year. The Kei Nishikori signature model is made from about five recycled two-liter bottles.

LifeWear is Stepping Up its Game
with Recycled Plastic

At last. As of 2020, the DRY-EX gamewear we developed in partnership with tennis players Roger Federer, Kei Nishikori, Shingo Kunieda, and Gordon Reid, all UNIQLO Global Brand Ambassadors, has been totally revamped, using recycled polyester. Sourced-you guessed it-from recycled plastic bottles. What makes this significant isn’t simply an effective use of materials. It means that high-quality uniforms that wick moisture, dry fast, feel great, and shine brightly on the court can be achieved using recycled fibers, while answering to the demands of the best players in the world. Federer, wearing his new uniform at the Australian Open in January, said he felt “the functionality and comfort is no different from other DRYEX,” and looked quite pleased as he thrilled the world with vibrant, lively plays. Just as he said, recycled polyester has no difference in quality. Making these recycled shirts was among the goals we set in May 2018, when UNIQLO teamed up with Toray Industries, developers of revolutionary materials like HEATTECH and AIRism, to develop sustainable products. If the fabric turned out to be inferior, the products wouldn’t sell, which would mean anything but a decreased load on the environment. And so, for about two years, both companies repeatedly concluded that unless they made a product that consumers really wanted, there would be no point. Finally, the clothes were ready for market.

Without Quality, There Can Be No Sustainability

Over the past few years, consumer consciousness towards the environment may have shifted due to increased interest in SDGs, but attitudes toward recycled products remain skeptical. A major aspect of why consumers hesitate to purchase a recycled product is perhaps not knowing how they are produced, making it difficult to know if they can be trusted. To fix this, we spent a year and a half building a system that allows for the materials of a product to be traced throughout the process, from the point of collection to the spinning of the thread. Early on, we decided to only use Japanese PET bottles. In addition to most of these bottles being transparent, the deep-seated social custom in Japan of removing labels and caps and rinsing out bottles prior to disposal means collected bottles contain very little in the way of foreign objects. Moreover, since the quality of collected bottles varies by municipality and recycling services, we can be particular about our suppliers and thus ensure a high-grade source material.

To navigate the complex process of creating thread from bottles, we teamed-up with Kyoei Industry Co., Ltd., which has superb technologies and thirty-five years of wide-ranging experience in the field of PET bottle recycling. Once any PVC bottles or stray metal have been sorted out, bottles are crushed and shredded, after which the plastic undergoes a special alkaline wash. This is followed by a melting operation, during which a filtration system eliminates any foreign matter. The result is a whiteness comparable to virgin material. Thorough elimination of impurities makes it possible to create extra thin fibers and unique cross-sectional shapes, allowing us to skillfully address any needs our sponsored athletes have in mind.

If we cut corners, the plastic bottles would wind up in the landfill anyway, only transformed into clothing, which solves nothing. High-quality, durability, and trust are all essential parts of the equation. This is the future of sustainability.

From PET Bottle to DRY-EX Polo Shirt

Start!
PET bottles collected from municipalities and recycling services. Compressed into cubic bales, they’re shipped to a Kyoei Industry processing facility.
Bales broken apart. All labels and caps have been removed, and soiling is minimal. A testament to the strong will of Japanese consumers, who are serious about recycling.
After sorting, crushing, and washing, the plastic is shredded into flakes. On the left are PET flakes after an alkaline wash. Compared with flakes washed using normal procedures (right), the whiteness is remarkable.
Flakes are melted at high temperature. Using a filtration system originally codeveloped by Toray Industries and Kyoei Industry, impurities are thoroughly eliminated. The resulting strings of resin are cooled with water.
Hardened by cooling, the strings of resin are chopped into tiny pellets with a cutting mechanism. This facilitates shipment and storage and makes for easier processing into fiber.
Pellet quality is checked using a dedicated lightbox. Material is inspected for discoloration and impurities. What passes will be used for fiber.
Moving from Kyoei Industry to the Toray thread-making factory, pellets are heated and melted , then forced through tiny holes into fibers.
Fibers are wound around drums. Making the pellets from exceptionally white flakes results in the creation of exceptionally white fibers.
Wound fibers. In a continuous flow, pellets are transformed into thread. In the next stage of the process, the intermediate product will be made suitable for clothing.
Heated with a heat stretching machine, fibers are stretched to 1.5-2.5 their original length. Preventing impurities from the recycled polyester allows for the creation of a thinner thread.
Winding on bobbins. At this point, the fibers are suitable for use in clothing. The new batch of fibers is shipped from the factory, woven, dyed and stitched into clothing.
DRY-EX polo shirts, available in stores for 2020 Spring & Summer. Because of the extreme whiteness of fibers made from recycled PET bottles, the blue and gray dyes stand out beautifully.
DRY-EX Short Sleeve Polo Shirt
Finish!

*Inclusion of recycled polyester varies by product and color.

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