the north face stores Expanded bottle processing center gives Unifi more recycling prowess
REIDSVILLE Thousands of bales of plastic bottles occupied a warehouse floor Wednesday, awaiting the promise of new life at Unifi Inc.’s expanded $28 million Repreve processing center in Reidsville.
For those bottles that emerge from a stringent sorting process, seven eventually will be turned into enough recycled polyester yarn to produce a pair of classic fit casual dress pants by Haggar. Another 16 bottles will become seat covers in a Ford F 150 truck.
The polyester chips about the size of a Tic Tac breath mint are made from post consumer plastics, such as soda and water bottles, along with post industrial fiber and fabric waste.
The bottles and fiber waste are chopped, grounded, melted and reformulated into the chips, which are then extruded and textured into the yarns. To date, about 4 billion plastic bottles have been recycled into Repreve yarn.
The 150,000 square foot processing center of which 80,000 square feet and accompanying equipment are new represents the Greensboro manufacturer’s latest step toward bringing the entire Repreve recycling process in house. When at full production, the center will operate around the clock seven days a week, said Thomas Caudle, Unifi’s chief executive.
“This is a bottle processing center unlike anything else in the world,” said Caudle, who was promoted from vice president of manufacturing to chief executive in an abrupt management turnover in April.
The chips produced at the Reidsville center about 200,000 pounds a day are shipped to Unifi’s yarn manufacturing plant in Yadkinville, where the company has about 1,000 employees.
The Reidsville processing center comes with 87 new jobs about half of which have been filled expanding the center’s workforce to more than 240.
Unifi gets plastic bottles through entering into one year sourcing contracts with municipalities along the East Coast, as well as third party buyers of used plastic bottles. Caudle said conversations with Coke and Pepsi indicate they have no plans to go away from plastic bottles in the near term.
Gov. Pat McCrory, taking a tour of the center during the grand opening ceremony, said he was impressed with how Unifi has met consumer demand for high quality apparel and other products with from sustainable and environmentally friendly resources.
“This expansion of Unifi’s Repreve business furthers North Carolina’s leadership in high tech manufacturing,” McCrory said. An $861,
000 grant from the state Commerce Department was provided to the city of Reidsville for critical sewer line upgrades to the plant. The Yadkinville plant received a $190,000 state grant.
McCrory said the three grants demonstrate the state’s commitment to meeting the growth needs of the state’s manufacturers.
Making another pitch for his $2 billion Connect NC initiative that voters approved in March in a statewide referendum, McCrory said “it’s hard to recruit and expand without upgraded water and sewer infrastructure and connectivity.”
Customers: Adidas, North Face
Repreve, which debuted in 2005, didn’t just enable Unifi to survive a deeply unprofitable period during the 2000s to be profitable the last five fiscal years.
It has also become a pivotal link between global apparel marketers and consumers. Among Unifi’s customers are Adidas, Dockers, New Balance, The North Face, Polartec and Timberland.
About 47 percent of Unifi’s customer base is apparel, followed by 18 percent in hosiery (mostly socks, tights and leg wear), 15 percent industrial customers, 9 percent home furnishings and 7 percent automotive fabrics.
“The vertical integration of our Repreve manufacturing program highlights an important next step in our continued push toward sustainability and producing high quality, value added products that have become a trusted resources for many of the largest apparel and retailers of the world,” Caudle said.
Unifi’s extrusion lines run around the clock at its Yadkinville recycling center, which opened in 2011. The center was expanded earlier this year to 130,000 square feet. Unifi has invested more than $25 million in the Yadkinville center.
The company is currently converting 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.
At that production level, the Yadkinville center accounts annually for the conversion of 900 million recycled plastic bottles. The recycling also means the equivalent of 16 million gallons of gasoline are not being required to make virgin polyester and nylon.
With the Reidsville bottle processing center on line, Unifi plans to ramp up production to 76 million pounds by the end of this year and eventually to 100 million pounds.
Bottles that don’t made the sorting cut will be sold to companies that make consumer food packaging, such as cups and takeout containers, as well as non food application such as strapping and film.
“I was fortunate to help build many of our North Carolina plants in the 1990s and had the misfortune to participate in shutting down several of them in the 2000s,” Caudle said.