Plastics Technology

NOV 2018

Plastics Technology - Dedicated to improving Plastics Processing.

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TRUE CALLING The great-great-grandson of a cotton-mill owner, George Allen Mebane IV founded Unifi in 1971 with a goal to disrupt how textiles are made. The company saw plenty of success for years, but in the 1980s the "polyester fad" declined. Unifi doubled down on more advanced technology as the market discovered new uses for poly- ester and nylon. For the next 20 years, Unifi enlarged its global footprint and diversified, focusing on high-quality synthetics. But it wasn't until 2007, with the development of Repreve recycled fiber, that Unifi found its true calling. It started as a way for the company to recycle its own manufacturing waste. But the firm soon realized the enormous potential impact if the company also recycled PET bottles. "So, instead of us just going through and producing a standard grade of textiles, going into the Repreve brand allowed us to differ- entiate ourselves from the competition," says Charlie Schwarze, global director of Repreve Recycled Business. Unifi evolved into a synthetic manufacturer focused on sustain- ability with the Repreve brand, which has become the fastest growing segment of sales within the company by revenue numbers. HOW THE PROCESS WORKS Schwarze says that in the U.S., Unifi works with communities and material recovery facilities (MRFs) to recycle the PET bottles. The company also works with direct sources of bottles such as a bottle distribution facility from a soft-drinks company. Unifi also engages with event venues like stadiums and concert halls to recycle bottles directly. The bottles are sent to Unifi's Repreve Bottle Processing Center in Reidsville, N.C. The 150,000 ft² center processes more than 2.2 billion PET bottles each year that will eventually become recycled performance fiber. The front-end separation equipment comes from Bulk Handling Systems (BHS), Eugene, Ore., (bulkhan- dlingsystems.com); and nine optical units with in-flight sorting technology are from National Recovery Technologies (nrtsorters. com), Nashville, Tenn., a wholly owned subsidiary of BHS. Optical separation units remove non-PET plastics from the raw-material stream and can process 22,000 lb/hr. Italy's Amut Spa (North American office in Vaughan, Ont.; amutgroup.com) designed, built and installed the PET washing line. A separate Amut process removes shrink-sleeve labels from the bottles. Autosort Flake equipment from Tomra, Sacramento, Calif. (tomra.com), sorts the washed and chopped flake a final time to ensure that impurities have been eliminated and color and flake size are consistent. Unifi employs about 150 in the bottle processing center and leans heavily on its employees to ensure the quality of its recycled PET. "Technology has gotten us to a certain point, but as PET pack- aging evolves—lighter weight, more non-clear bottles, more shrink labels, and inclusion of metal in things like spray pumps—our employees that keep the line running and hand-sort bottles are the keys to success in terms of recycled PET quality," Schwarze says. The production flake is transported to the Repreve Recycling Center in Yadkinville, N.C., where it is extruded and pelletized to make what the company calls "chip." Unifi also sources material directly into the Repreve Recycling Center, including pre-consumer yarn material as well as fabric scraps. These can be combined into what Unifi calls a hybrid blend of pre-consumer and post-consumer waste, which is extruded into chip and then into yarn. The center occupies more than 105,000 ft² and houses three Starlinger recoSTAR Universal units and one recoSTAR Dynamic unit. (Starlinger's U.S. office is American Starlinger-Sahm, Fountain Inn, S.C., starlingersahm.com.) Of the four Starlinger units, three are hybrid-capable, meaning they can process both post-industrial fiber material and post-consumer bottle material. There's one machine dedicated to just post-consumer bottle flake. The company also utilizes two Starlinger ViscoSTAR solid-state polycondensation units for decontamination and I.V. increase when necessary. Recycled material is blended, melted and turned into Repreve pelletized resin, which is loaded into silos, each of which holds 1 million lb of chip. Next, the resin heads to Unifi's fiber-spin- ning plant, where Unifi uses 36 extruders from Oerlikon Textile, Charlotte, N.C., to convert resin into Repreve partially-oriented yarn (POY). Unifi then ships the yarn to its customers. Schwarze says Unifi can solution-dye the material, which allows addition of a pigment or color to the yarn at the POY phase. In Reidsville, Unifi also has a packaged dye facility that can dye the yarn in various colors. The choice of dyeing approach depends on customer needs and the economics that go into selling that yarn. The yarn then goes to various mills that will knit or weave the fiber into different end products. And then it proceeds to cut and finishing operations, which ultimately ends up on store shelves and branded products. Unifi is an advocate of automation. As show here, robots pick up spools of thread at the Repreve Recycling Center. @plastechmag 37 Plastics Technology On-Site Unifi

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