On Monday, the Greensboro-based yarn manufacturer began running two extrusion lines around-the-clock at the 50,000-square-foot facility on its Yadkinville complex.
"Sustainability is a conscious commitment, and this center is a perfect example of how research and development and reinvestment can work for this industry in this country," Bill Jasper, the chairman and chief executive of Unifi, said Wednesday at the grand opening of the center.
At full production, the center expects to convert about 42 million pounds of recycled products a year — 31 million pounds of post-consumer plastic bottles and 11 million pounds of post-industrial fiber and fabric waste — into chips for use in its Repreve polyester yarn.
Reaching that level would result in 900 million plastic bottles being recycled and the equivalent of 16 million gallons of gasoline not being required to make virgin polyester and nylon, the company said.
Unifi gets the bulk of its recycled material from suppliers that buy the bottles from municipalities and waste companies. Aggregators handle some of the cleaning and preparation work.
The center is aimed at meeting the growing demand from apparel manufacturers and retailers for the Repreve yarn line.
Introduced in 2006, Repreve has been a major sales and branding factor in Unifi's stunning financial turnaround of the past three years. It returned to profitability in 2010 after 10 years in textile-manufacturing limbo.
Four major apparel customers — Eddie Bauer, the North Face, Patagonia and Polartec — sell outdoor and sportswear featuring Repreve. Wal-Mart, Haggar, Sears and Cintas are working with Unifi on recycled apparel programs.
The center led to the creation of 25 jobs, expanding Unifi's workforce in Yadkinville to about 970.
"Sustainability in textiles is not a trend but a movement," Mowbray said. "Failure is not option."
One challenge facing yarn and apparel manufacturers and retailers is providing transparency about how green a product is, Mowbray said.
Unifi recently introduced a "fiber print" technology that enables it to determine how much Repreve yarn is in a piece of clothing.
Perhaps the biggest challenge in selling sustainable apparel is customers being willing to pay extra.
Berrier said that as the center helps make more recycled yarn available, the cost of Repreve will decrease because of economies of scale.
"It's crucial to have consumer buy-in to drive demand for sustainable apparel production," Mowbray said. "The big question is whether they will pay more, and the answer is, 'No, not yet.' What we've learned in Europe is that they will if the apparel benefits them in value and design as well as sustainability."