Chemical recycling is the chemical breakdown of a material into its basic building blocks.
Chemical recycling can be used to break down materials such as polyester and nylon into their basic building blocks and remove colorants and other contaminants. This process enables synthetic textiles or dirty ocean plastics, which couldn’t otherwise be recycled, to become recyclable. With polyester, the polymer can be broken down either through glycolysis (by splitting sugar molecules), hydrolysis (by splitting water molecules) or methanolysis (by splitting methyl alcohol molecules). Depending on the process, a different building block (monomer or oligomer) is recovered and then re-polymerized to create a new, virgin-quality material. Mechanical recycling is more established, but chemical recycling allows for greater flexibility in quality, color and performance in the final product.
While chemical recycling is more energy intensive than a mechanical process, there are still environmental impact savings. Chemically recycled polyester using a glycolysis process, for example, reduces CO₂ emissions by 35% compared to virgin polyester.
Turning waste into something new
Where We Are
Patagonia uses chemical recycling with synthetic materials like polyester, nylon and ECONYL®, but also with natural fibers such as REFIBRA® lyocell (made from wood and recycled cotton fibers).
Globally, we need more adoption of chemical-recycling processes. Chemical recycling of postconsumer materials and textiles lacks a well-established collection infrastructure (think of the scarcity of recycling bins for old garments). Similar to mechanical-recycling challenges, certain contaminants and blends, such as spandex in a jacket, make the chemical recycling of fabric challenging. If others contribute to the demand for chemical recycling, it will help bolster the needed support for more advanced technology and the necessary infrastructure on a global scale.
As we move toward using only recycled materials in the garments we make, chemical recycling is important to keep the quality and performance of our fabrics up to our standards. There is so much potential to turn the ugliest, dirtiest, least-desired waste into beautiful and useful fibers, materials and, eventually, garments that you’ll wear.
We continue to support the development of new chemical-recycling technologies and the establishment of solid supply chains.