When Latha throws away used plastic water bottles every week, she is only clearing waste at home. Thirumalaisamy, a conservancy worker with the Coimbatore City Municipal Corporation, collects garbage door-to-door and earns ₹5 for 35-40 waste PET bottles, adding up to about a kilo, by selling them to the neighbourhood scrap dealer.
Neither has a clue where the discarded bottles go afterwards. About 45 km from Coimbatore, at Tirupur, S. Krishna Kumar needs 55 lakh bottles a day for his PET bottle recycling plant. He buys it from large scrap dealers in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka, paying ₹40 to ₹43 for a kilo waste plastic bottles.
At the recycling plant, these bottles pass through conveyor belts, filtration tanks and dryers to be sorted, crushed, cleaned, coloured and turned into PET fibre. This recycled polyester fibre is mixed with fibre from hosiery waste, spun into yarn and supplied to power loom weaving clusters not just in Tamil Nadu but across the country. When it is not mixed with hosiery waste fibre, it is used to make mattresses, cushions, quilts and non-woven fabrics.
Thanks to the textile industry ecosystem in Tamil Nadu — including the availability of recycled fibre, and the presence of a large number of hosiery units in Tirupur and spinning mills in the western districts — the use of recycled fibre is becoming popular, whether for lungis made in Bhavani, the bedsheets of Chennimalai, the towels of Salem or the kitchen linen of Karur.
Approximately 8 to 12 bottles go into the making of a garment, a mattress needs about 120 bottles.
B.P. Sultania, president of the All India Recycled Fibre and Yarns Association, says around 35 companies in India recycle PET bottles, producing 50,000 tonnes of recycled fibre a month. This equals almost 50% of the virgin polyester produced in the country. Though Mr. Sultania started his unit in 1996, it was only after 2006 that the industry gained momentum. “This is because of better awareness and technology, and more applications for recycled fibre,” he says. The applications for recycled fibre can, in fact, improve further as technology gets better.
Tamil Nadu has two PET recycling plants, one each in Tirupur and Karur, and most of the 450 open-end spinning mills in the State have begun using recycled fibre. Open-end spinning mills normally buy waste cotton from textile mills for raw material and supply yarn to power loom clusters that make bedsheets, towels, lungis, home furnishing and mops. Now, their use of recycled fibre is on the rise.
According to G. Arulmozhi, whose mill in Coimbatore uses both recycled fibre and waste cotton, the trend has picked up in the last four years. About 10% to 20% of yarn spun by the open-end spinning mills in the State are made out of recycled fibre (a mix of recycled PET fibre and hosiery waste fibre).
“We generally buy cotton waste from textile mills and use it as raw material. The yarn manufactured by our units is used in powerloom clusters. But issues such as increase in the price of cotton and fluctuations in the availability of waste cotton made us look at options. The use of recycled fibre instead of 100% cotton waste results in better price and production,” Mr. Arulmozhi says.
The absorption quality is still good in products such as towels since hosiery waste fibre is used in them. The recycled fibre yarn is used mostly for low-price products. Demand for recycled fibre yarn is high now from power loom clusters in the northern States too, he adds.
At Chennimalai, a major powerloom cluster located nearly 85 km from Coimbatore, 98% of the cone yarn used is recycled fibre yarn, says K.C. Chandrasekaran, who has been in the textile industry since 1981.
Selvam, a weaver in Chennimalai, says, “Earlier, we used to get yarn from the merchants and send it for dyeing. It would take two or three weeks. Now, we get coloured yarn. We are able to save ₹10 for a kilo of yarn. There are 16 to 18 colours. It goes straight into weaving. There are no knots in the yarn and so there is a smooth finish in the bedsheets.”
The cost factor
“We save on the cost involved in labour, dyeing, the transport for dyeing and also time,” Suresh, another weaver at Melapalayam, says. Productivity is therefore higher, products are available at relatively lower prices, and the demand has not tapered, which indicates the products are accepted by consumers, say the weavers.
Annasagaram in Dharmapuri district used to have 1,000 looms weaving small towels. The number of looms had fallen to about 500 because of challenges such as labour shortage and problems in dyeing the yarn. Now, there is a revival and there are about 3,000 functioning looms as the use of recycled fibre yarn has increased, says Mr. Chandrasekaran.
Some knotty problems
Nevertheless, there are challenges. The recycling sector needs to be sustainable, say industry sources. While caps are recycled into plastic pellets, the labels removed from the bottles remain waste. Western countries adopt Global Recycle Standards and garments made out of 100% recycled fibre are sold as sustainable products.
The bottles are supplied by the unorganised sector. “It is very difficult to get adequate quantities of PET bottles during winter. The government does not permit the import of waste PET bottles,” says Mr. Krishnakumar.
“Except for the special excise duty on recycled fibre, there is no support from the government,” says Mr. Sultania.
Mr. Chandrasekaran too hopes the environment-friendly recycled fibre will be encouraged by the government with concessions.