At the end of the movie Back to the Future, mad scientist Emmett “Doc” Brown reappears with his time-traveling DeLorean, newly powered by garbage thanks to a fictional recycling reactor from the future called Mr. Fusion. A company in Japan is building its own Mr. Fusion. It’s even bought a replica of the iconic car to promote it.
Recycler Jeplan is working to extract cotton fiber from used apparel and convert it to fuel. Jeplan says 1 ton of junked clothing can generate about 700 liters of ethanol, sparing land and water resources that could be used to grow food. The company says it’s also developed a way to recycle polyester. That compound is blended into many fabrics to reduce costs, improve durability, and make outfits wrinkle-resistant. It’s used in about 60 percent of the clothing produced worldwide each year, according to Jeplan, and can be a valuable resource when broken down and reused in new clothing.
Recycling plastics, paper, and metals is common, but much of the clothing produced annually around the world ends up in landfills and incinerators. “Only 10 percent of clothing gets recycled, and that includes secondhand sales,” says Masaki Takao, co-founder and chief executive officer of Tokyo-based Jeplan. “That’s true in every country.”
Takao and his team are working on a technique that extracts polyester fibers from clothing through multiple distillation and vaporization cycles. The process generates half the amount of carbon dioxide that’s produced when making the material from scratch. Getting the polyester to a high level of purity is the hard part, Takao says: “Nobody is doing it, because it’s so difficult.”
Takao left graduate school to found Jeplan in 2007 with Michihiko Iwamoto, a textile salesman for trading companies. The company collaborated with Osaka University to develop the cotton-recycling technology. It began commercial operations in 2010, consulting on recycling matters for clients including Mitsubishi and NTT Docomo. Jeplan has raised about $13 million since its founding and counts Docomo and venture capital firm Jafco among its investors.
In Back to the Future, Doc Brown—played by Christopher Lloyd—fed banana peels and a half-full can of beer into a coffee-grinder-size Mr. Fusion. Jeplan’s process requires a factory. The company is building a plant on the southern island of Kyushu, expected to begin operating this summer, to handle 2,000 tons of clothing per year. Polyester is currently being stockpiled until the factory opens.
To promote Jeplan’s recycling efforts, Takao ordered a full-size replica of the DeLorean from the movie. He had to submit a formal request to Universal Pictures before the studio sold him the car and granted him promotion rights. He won’t say what he paid, but flying the model to Japan cost 5 million yen ($44,000).
The DeLorean will spend more time on the road, traveling to shopping malls across Japan to promote Jeplan’s work. To compete with conventional production methods, the company needs 30,000 tons of polyester clothing per year. Takao is hoping the car will draw crowds that, after learning more about Jeplan’s recycling, will donate items.
The company has placed used-clothing collection boxes in 2,100 locations throughout Japan, including at the malls, and teamed with Ryohin Keikaku, the owner of retailer Muji, and 7-Eleven owner Seven & I Holdings. Takao also plans to enlist several apparel makers in the collection efforts and ultimately sell clothing made from the recycled material to the manufacturers.
Jeplan is in talks with sports brands and soccer teams worldwide about similar initiatives. Takao sees an opportunity to tap into a strong fan base; plus, players’ uniforms are high in polyester content, perfect for recycling. “It’s hard to motivate consumers with appeals to earnestness or concern for the earth, but they will join if it’s something fun,” he says. “By doing these kinds of events, we hope to effect a cultural change around recycling.”
The bottom line: Recycling polyester can reduce the clothing that winds up in landfills and cut back on chemicals used in making textiles.