Polyester is the most commonly used synthetic fibre in the world. IKEA has taken the decision to only use recycled polyester instead of virgin polyester, a decision bringing us one step closer to one of our ambitions, only using renewable or recycled materials by 2030.
You have probably come across the term recycled polyester a few times before. Perhaps you saw it on the tag inside your favourite pair of yoga trousers or noticed it the last time you bought a towel. But what is it? How is it produced? What makes it different from ‘regular’ polyester? Here you will learn more about what makes recycled polyester better than virgin and the challenges we will continue to tackle.
Meet recycled polyester
Just like conventional (or virgin) polyester, recycled polyester is a strong, flexible and durable material made from synthetic fibres. Polyester is a type of polymer, which is a specific category of chemicals. PET is the most common polyester resin; it’s an abbreviation for the term polyethylene terephthalate – a polymer composed of ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid. The chemicals used to make PET come from oil and sometimes coal. PET is commonly used in plastic bottles. By recycling PET, we can avoid exhausting natural resources and reuse them instead.
Since polyester doesn’t absorb moisture, naturally resists stains and is a great insulator, polyester is very popular within clothing, home furnishings, industrial fabrics and electrical insulation. Recycled polyester doesn’t compromise the quality of the regular version: it feels just like new and is completely safe to use.
Essential facts about recycling polyester
1. Reduces CO2Using recycled polyester rather than virgin can cut CO2 emissions from the material by up to 50 per cent, based on industry standards and current research collected in the Quantis World Apparel Lifecycle Database. That means we can produce the same amount of products but with half the carbon footprint of conventional production.
2. Reduces waste to landfills and oceans
Recycled polyester comes with another planet-friendly effect. By shifting from virgin to recycled polyester, we decrease the amount of plastic waste that risk ending up in landfills and oceans.
3. Reduces our dependence on fossil fuels
Virgin polyester is made from oil. By producing recycled polyester instead of the regular version, we don’t rely on such fossil fuels.
The recycling processHow can plastic waste turn into everything from cushions to carpets? It’s not magic: the secret lies in different recycling processes. We start by acquiring PET. Today we typically use PET bottles. However, we’re also targeting other PET waste such as food containers, waste yarns and textiles.
At IKEA, we often use a mechanical recycling process. It works across multiple steps.
- The plastic waste is washed and sorted, to make it clean and safe to use.
- The plastic waste is then shredded into small flakes.
- The flakes are then melted together at a high temperature to create uniform pellets.
- The uniform pellets are then spun into fibre and yarn.
No harmful chemicals are used throughout the process, and the finished material complies with our high standards, requirements and all legislations across our markets where recycled polyester products are sold.
To give you a sense of scale, it takes about two five-litre PET bottles to make one T-shirt. That’s the simplified explanation: realistically, the recycling process always changes a little bit based on what we’re making. 1 kilogram of an IKEA product is equivalent to 60 half-litre bottles.
Recycled polyester is a step forward, but it's not taking us all the way
By 2030, IKEA aims to be a climate positive and circular business. That means we’ll reduce more greenhouse gases than we emit across our entire value chain and develop products that have circular capabilities for reuse, refurbishment, remanufacture and recycling.
To help us reach our goal, we gave ourselves a challenge. By 2020, we wanted to stop using virgin polyester in our textile products by replacing it with the recycled version. We managed to convert 90 per cent of virgin polyester into recycled and are now extending our current scope beyond textile products. This enables us to lower our carbon footprint – but we have to be honest. Recycled polyester comes with its challenges. With that in mind, this material is not necessarily the end destination, but it’s a step in the right direction.
The fact is that recycled polyester isn’t perfect from a sustainability point of view. For example, washing polyester releases microplastics (or microfibres) which harm the ocean and the environment. Moreover, PET bottles – the most common recycled polyester resin – aren’t very traceable. The industry can't always ensure that the social and environmental conditions, when collecting feedstock, live up to the IKEA supply chain standard.
Finally, another issue is down-cycling when producing recycled polyester from PET bottles. While a PET bottle can be chemically recycled almost an infinite number of times, fibres and textiles are harder to recycle; we simply don’t have the industrial capabilities in place to enable their reuse on a significant scale.
First of all, IKEA is a member of The Microfibre Consortium. We’re active in different task forces with the long-term objective of reducing fibre shredding from polyester. Specifically, IKEA and other industry-leading companies are looking into a globally recognised technology that will help us track improvements to the fibre shredding problem. We’re also considering more industry guidelines to enable conscious product development and best practice guidelines for manufacturing.
Moreover, all recycled polyester used in the IKEA range comes from recyclers who comply with the Global Recycling Standard. With that said, we still struggle to trace the first step in the process: the bottle collection itself. However, we’re working hard on finding a solution for this. Specifically, we’re looking into coming up with a method to secure decent working conditions for waste collectors.
As for the challenge with down-cycling plastic bottles, we want to make sure our materials can be recycled over and over again. That’s why we’re looking into alternative materials to start our recycling process, like textiles. We’re also looking into using BioPET – a polyester resin that originates from sugar – as feedstock.
Achievements so far:
Addressing challenges connected to recycled polyester requires commitment, innovation and time. It will take us a few years to get to where we want to be. But we already have a lot to be proud of. IKEA is now repurposing around the equivalent of eight billion bottles a year. That number alone has established IKEA as a polyester industry leader in the path towards creating climate-positive business. Our goal to reach 100% recycled polyester in textile products by the end of 2020 was bold. We managed to reach as far as 90%, and we are proud of it.
Converting virgin polyester to recycled – by the numbers
According to the Material Change Insights Report from Textile Exchange, which compares 170 international corporations, IKEA is an industry leader in terms of volume when it comes to converting virgin polyester to recycled. By the end of 2020, the total volume of IKEA virgin polyester converted to recycled polyester was 130,000 metric tonnes. That means 200,000 tonnes of CO2 savings. This is equivalent to 80,000 cars taken off the roads. Here’s why:
We believe that our conversion volumes enable us to make a positive impact – and push industry norms towards a more sustainable direction.
Taking the next steps towards a sustainable futureRecycling textile fibre
Finding other reliable material sources is a priority for IKEA. In fact, it’s a prerequisite for reaching our goals of only using recycled or renewable materials by 2030. A big opportunity lies in recycling existing textiles and turning them into new textiles and fibres. For example, in 2021, IKEA started to pilot the FORTSKRIDA collection with colourful and expressive cushion covers, curtains and table cloths in Italy. Products made from 100 per cent recycled content, namely plastic bottles and jeans. Closing the recycling loop for textile materials presents several industry-wide challenges on a larger scale. We need to learn more about the chemical content of recyclable textiles. We also need to find solutions for the limited recycling technologies, improve recyclable textile availability and secure traceability. That’s why one of our ongoing projects is a collaboration between Inter IKEA Group and H&M Group: together, we’re trying to alleviate the knowledge gaps around chemical content in recycled textiles.
Since the project launched in June 2020, more companies have joined us - which we hope will result in smarter test strategies for recycled textiles. We believe that by joining forces, the entire industry can find better and more reliable ways of using pre-and post-consumer textiles for large-scale material and product production.
At IKEA, we are constantly looking for other possible raw material sources to make polyester – like corn, sugar canes and woody biomass.
PET from renewable sources is commonly called BioPET. BioPET helps optimise our production processes from a material sourcing point of view, leading us to make sustainable materials more affordable. We’re not yet sure whether BioPET could contribute to lowering our carbon footprint, but we’re eager to find out. To sum it up: IKEA will continue to explore BioPET – because if it helps to make our products better for people and the planet, it’s worth investing in!