Recycling and repurposing fabric will bring the satisfaction of doing what’s right— and boost your bottom line.
By Jan Brenny
Being ‘green’ is becoming a necessary part of doing business today. Operations of all sizes and across all industries are adopting business models that embrace sustainability and eco-friendliness. In the fabrics industry, corporate responsibility and large retailers are two major factors driving the movement, says Jimmy Jarrett, president and co-founder of Martex Fiber Southern Corp., a Spartanburg, S.C., fiber and fabric recycler. “Walmart and Target are at the forefront of sustainability,” he says. Beyond that, from the construction to the clothing industries, “everyone is looking for sustainable products, or to see if there are ways to make their products more sustainably,” Jarrett says.
New technologies and the recognition that the fabric waste stream needs attention are also helping, says Steve Morenberg, national sales and marketing manager for Polyfab USA in Manhattan Beach, Calif. The company recently started a shadecloth recycling program. “Customers are requesting it,” he says. “People want to do better by the environment. If they have a big pile of fabric that sits in a landfill for a couple thousand years, they don’t feel good about that.”
Recycling and the environment have always been priorities for Travis Rigby, owner of PosterGarden, a Portland, Ore.-based trade show display company. “Everyone here feels strongly about taking care of the planet,” he says. “All the fabric we use is made from recycled pop bottles and we don’t use laminates. We also print directly to raw polyester film that hasn’t been coated with any material, which improves recyclability.”
About a year ago, Rigby started the Redeem Green program, partly because customers were asking what to do with their old displays. PosterGarden began offering a $25 credit toward future purchases if customers turned in, rather than trashed, their old displays. Besides the $25 credit, which applies for everyone, the company also pays return shipping on displays that were purchased from PosterGarden. The company refurbishes the displays and donates them to nonprofit groups. Unsalvageable units are dismantled, separated into components and sent to metal, fabric and other material recyclers.
Rigby puts local ads on Craigslist to help get rid of some of the fabric, and shoppers come from all over the area. “We were sort of surprised that there was so much demand,” he says.
What Rigby does is more about satisfying customers and doing the right thing than it is about the money. “Our employees all take personal responsibility for our recycling program,” he says. “Many of them actually help us build and improve our programs.”
The right thing to do
Environmental commitment and profit go hand in hand at Portland Color, a fabric printer in Portland, Maine. Owner Andy Graham created an environmental mission statement touting the company’s green business practices, of which there are many. “We have a complete and utter commitment to sustainability,” he says in the statement. “It is simply the right thing to do.”
The business donates leftover fabric—about 20 percent of its waste stream—to a nearby college’s theater department for use in costuming and staging productions, according to Paul Glynn, vice president of operations. Portland Color also signed on with a nonprofit warehouse organization enterprise in a nearby town that takes reuseables, such as fabric, foam board and paper—the bulk of Portland Color’s waste. State educators pay a small membership fee to join and can then take classroom materials for free. Non-reuseable materials go into bins provided by a local recycler. “We call when they’re full, and they bring us empty ones,” Glynn says.
Portland Color was among the first companies to become certified as an eco-friendly printer through the Sustainable Green Printing (SGP) Partnership, a consortium of print industry groups, and that appeals to customers. “One of the big things is that you’re using less to make more,” he says, which helps both the business and clients save money. “We try and design around client requirements and needs,” Glynn says, but if there’s a greener way to ship something smarter, or print something more cost-effectively, employees suggest options. For instance, an item that comes in a crate the first time might come in a tube the next.
“We can point people in a more sustainable direction and say, ‘you can save a whole lot on shipping if you do it this way,’” he says. “It’s been a huge hit whenever we go out and work to present our solutions to potential clients.”
While being green can work as a strategic marketing tool, actions speak louder than words, says Steve Fredrickson, architectural market manager for the Ferrari Group. The company recycles used and scrap materials through Texyloop®, a closed loop, polyester/PVC composite recycling technology.
Fabricators and other sources ship scrap materials to a network of approved collection sites across Europe. These sites send the recyclables to the Texyloop plant in Ferrare, Italy, where they’re processed into new raw materials. Instead of being incinerated or going into a landfil, they’re reused to make a variety of new products. Since Texyloop began in 2004, more than 2,000 tons of used fabric have been recycled, and the program continues to grow, Fredrickson says.
Nonetheless, taking part can be an expensive proposition. As a result, the value can sometimes be “probably more feel-good than economic,” he says. “But it shows that these companies are actually helping the environment and truly making and taking steps to be more green, as opposed to those companies who just paint themselves green with a broad brush.”
While recycling is the law for some materials, others are simply leftovers of daily business. Faith Roberts, IFM, MFC, owner of Banner Canvas, a marine fabricator in Ham Lake, Minn., researches to find viable recycling alternatives for everything, whether or not required by law. “It absolutely pays to recycle,” she says. “If you bring metal to the scrap yard, you get paid. It may only be $20, but that buys lunch.”
The local county has honored Roberts’ business because of its recycling record—1.25 tons of fabric scraps, cardboard and other materials every year. “We’re always looking for new ways and places to recycle,” she says. Dealing with fabric is probably the hardest part because there aren’t that many outlets and because of logistics, she says. “I try not to throw it away if I don’t have to,” she says. She makes and sells a line of tire covers constructed from end-bolt materials. Sometimes she throws in covers as an “extra” or as promotional items, which engenders good will from customers. She also makes air-conditioner covers and donates scraps to schools.
“It’s a mind-set,” Roberts says about recycling. “The owner of a facility has to be proactive about it and say, ‘This is how we’re going to do things.’ It may cost on the front side but I think there’s a moral issue. I, for one, would gladly spend the time and money. It comes back to your belief system and doing the right thing.”
Recycling or repurposing leftover scraps for resale is possible, but efforts aren’t always worthwhile—especially when the attention is drawn away from primary business operations. Although Kathy Schaefer, owner of Glawe Awning and Tent in Fairborn, Ohio, doesn’t have any formal recycling program in place, she has tried making sewing bags out of leftover awning material and putting them for sale in the showroom. She watched the price go from $15 to $10 to $7.50. “It got annoying that they were still there,” she says. Now Schaefer just rolls the nicer fabric pieces into a tube, puts them in a bin and sell them to people—$5 for small pieces, $10 for large.
Television sometimes helps her clear out those bins. “One day a couple of women came in talking about making some crafty thing for the house that they’d seen on HGTV, and they needed material,” Schaefer says. “That’s happened before. A lot of the time they make cushions.”
Local city groundskeepers, who were losing a battle with weeds, came to Schaefer for help, giving her an especially unique repurposing opportunity. After trying with chemicals, workers asked if Schaefer had any potential weedblock material. She gave them 30 old awnings, which were pieced together to nearly cover the area. “It looked like a patchwork quilt out there,” she says.
While Schaefer believes in recycling and repurposing leftovers, she’s careful not to let doing so interfere with the main business. “When we have time to sew, we want to be sewing an awning,” she says. “Still, it just kills you to throw anything away.”
Keeping a close eye on his tent inventory helps Rusty Parr get as much as he can out of it. That way, the owner of AV Party Rentals, Newhall, Calif., knows when he has run out of options. The operation disposes of 10,000 to 15,000 square feet of canvas every year, he reports.
Parr set up an A-B-C lifespan rating system for his tents. In general, ‘A”, or wedding appropriate, lasts about a year; ‘B,’ or festival grade, lasts about five years; and ‘C,’ or functional grade, is anything after that. “Unless it’s torn or damaged severely, we can usually get about eight years out of a piece of canvas as it goes from grade to grade to grade,” he says.
Once tents do go bad, there’s not a lot of recycling options, he says. Parr has taken older models, still in decent shape, to a nearby tent manufacturer, who sews drop cloths and bags for about $5 a seam. Parr offers the drop cloths to tent-renting customers and uses the bags around the shop to store newer canvas. Currently, he doesn’t sell the recycled items, but he’s evaluating whether doing so might make sense in the future.
He also sometimes sells ‘C’ grade, useable tents to companies located out of the area. “They have to be at least a state or two away so I don’t see the tents again,” he says. “We probably get about five cents to the dollar on what a new tent would cost.”
Being green may not always be easy or generate huge profits, but recycling and repurposing can definitely be worthwhile, and the trend will continue. Fabricators can capitalize on it and make the most of opporunities that are likely to grow. Businesses—and the planet—can benefit.