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Nishant on turning plastic bottles into artificial sheepskins

Polyester is one of the most popular synthetic fibres in the world. For decades, it’s been used in everything from packaging to garments. But virgin polyester doesn’t live up to IKEA’s sustainability requirements to reach the ambitious goal of being a circular business by 2030. We talked to Caroline and Nishant about material innovation and a more sustainable artificial sheepskin.

For Caroline McGarvey, Sustainability Manager at IKEA, it’s a part of the job to take a closer look at the environmental impact of the materials used in IKEA products. Caroline explains that polyester is a material with big contrasts.

“Let’s start with the good – polyester is a durable material. Its resistance to wrinkles and low maintenance make it ideal for lots of home furnishing products and textiles, like rugs, pillows or cushions. It’s also an affordable material. The problem is that virgin polyester is made from oil, coal or natural gas. So, when we use polyester, we exhaust the planet’s natural resources,” Caroline says.

So, at IKEA, we faced a challenge: How could we keep the benefits of polyester and at the same time drastically lower its negative impact on the environment?

The answer turned out to be recycled polyester – a material with a lower environmental impact that has already replaced 90 per cent of the virgin polyester used in IKEA textile products.

”The great thing about replacing virgin polyester with the recycled one is that we can be more sustainable without sacrificing material quality,” Caroline says.

Portrait of a woman in a black-and-white scarf, with art on the wall behind her.

An undulating beige fabric.

Caroline McGarvey, Sustainability Manager.

Recycled polyester is just as durable and wrinkle resistant as the virgin version, but producing it can emit up to 50 per cent less carbon dioxide.

“It also lets us repurpose plastic rather than send it off to landfills as pollution. Recycled polyester is commonly made from PET, the type of plastic that can be found in for example water bottles –which go to landfills unless they’re recycled”, says Caroline.

Recycled polyester is better than virgin polyester for the environment, but does it make a better product? Nishant Verma was project leading the development of one of the first IKEA products based on recycled polyester – TOFTLUND. TOFTLUND is an artificial sheepskin, and the goal was to give TOFTLUND the soft touch and feel of sheepskin and create a more sustainable version that was easy to care for.

“A big challenge in general with rugs is maintenance. TOFTLUND solves those issues by being lightweight, soft and washable”, says Nishant.

Clear PET bottles and plastic bags.

Nishant explains that TOFTLUND came to life to improve another beloved IKEA product: the TEJN rug, also a fake sheepskin.

“The challenge with TEJN was the high pile. Fibres kept coming loose and falling off the rug, so we decided to redesign it by exploring new materials”, he says.

The intention was to come up with a rug that would speak to people who care about the environment. It would also gently mimic the look and feel of sheepskin while avoiding any animal products. The design team landed on a solution to achieve these goals: take out the acrylic and make the product entirely out of recycled polyester.

“We chose recycled polyester to create a more sustainable product. It’s not that acrylic is unsustainable, exactly, but we can have a more positive impact on the environment by using recycled polyester over acrylic, and on top of that it will be easier to recycle again as we do not mix materials,” says Nishant.

A pair of hands measuring the thickness of a white fake sheepskin with a metal ruler.

Portrait of a man in glasses and a blue shirt, in front of a striped multicolour fabric.

Nishant Verma, project leader for TOFTLUND.

At that time, recycled polyester was relatively new to IKEA as far as materials go. So, when the TOFTLUND team decided to work with it, they had to get to know the material first. That process included overcoming a few challenges.

“First of all, we realised that it was difficult to get the same kind of lustre and softness that we saw in TEJN when only using recycled polyester,” says Nishant. “We also struggled to create a consistent, white version of TOFTLUND. To create a clean white, you need to separate coloured from non-coloured waste in the production process carefully.”

To overcome these roadblocks, the team had to experiment with recycled polyester and change their approach. For example, a supplier was tasked with figuring out how to give recycled polyester a high level of lustre and softness. After about a year of development, the supplier’s team cracked the code.

White plastic materials in three piles on a white surface; one fluffy, one in flake form and one in pellet form.

Two rolled up pieces of fabric on a blue and beige digital scale, on a white tabletop.

Bottles are shredded into flakes. The flakes then get compounded into plastic pellets and transformed into recycled polyester fibers.

Nishant’s team also had to develop stricter protocols for separating coloured plastic bottles from the rest, to get a truly white TOFTLUND carpet.

“The main lesson we learned about recycled polyester is that you have to be flexible. You have to embrace a collaborative approach, so that material experts, producers and designers all work together to figure out how to best use the material.”

Another lesson learned is that you have to think about design a bit differently when working with recycled polyester.

“It’s about making sure your design fits the constraints of the material – not the other way around. If we want to reach our goal of being a circular business by 2030, we need to look to innovation to solve the unsolvable,” says Nishant.

Two white fake sheepskins; one is rolled up and lies on top of the other.

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