For years, Americans have been encouraged to decrease our consumption of bottled water and use reusable beverage containers, cutting down on the number of plastic bottles that end up in landfills. Despite the efforts of various sustainability campaigns, the Beverage Marketing Corporation reported that bottled water consumption reached an all-time high in 2012 when Americans consumed 9.7 million gallons of water, 65 percent of that in the form of single-use disposable bottles.
As bottled beverage consumption increases, so does the number of eco-conscious manufacturers looking to do something about the amassing amount of recyclable plastics. Apparel made from recycled bottles has boomed in recent years, with everything from basic T-shirts to high-performance athletic uniforms touting various percentages of recycled plastic bottles. Nike — which also recycles athletic shoes and rubber waste to create athletic fields and flooring, running tracks, playgrounds and more through its Nike Grind program — made a splash at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, outfitting athletes from 17 countries in uniforms made from recycled plastic. Under Armour and adidas have their own athletic lines made with recycled materials, the latter recently partnering with musician Pharrell Williams on a line created from plastic debris pulled from the ocean. Coca-Cola has even attempted to get in on the market with its Drink2Wear T-shirt line.
Even with the growing interest and advancements in repurposed fabric, there still is room to make a bigger impact — the average shirt diverts only 15 to 20 bottles from the landfill.
Enter Putterman Athletics. The Chicago-based company has been outfitting athletic facilities with windscreens, curtains, covers, netting and padding for nearly a century. Seeing increased focus on sustainability and green initiatives by its customers — particularly at the university level — the company decided to kick the concept of repurposed fabric up a notch with its new ReGardTM line. "To put a windscreen around one tennis court is about 2,000 repurposed bottles," says Adrian Autry, vice president of strategic development. "To cover every section of seating in a standard soccer arena would be a half-million."
While the core materials are the same, arriving at the final product wasn't as easy as applying the manufacturing process used to create fabric for apparel. "There's a huge difference between repurposing materials for apparel and for industrial applications," explains Autry. "A shirt only has to have a useful lifespan of a year or so and doesn't have to deal with regular exposure to UV light, wind or other environmental elements."
As such, ReGard's creation required not only a shift in thinking at Putterman, but at all of the companies involved in the manufacturing process. "The major hurdle was finding producers that could take the bottle and create yarn that complies to the specifications of our industry," Autry says.
It wasn't just about finding companies able to meet the specifications; they also had to share the eco-conscious values that inspired the initial product. "It had to be a group buy-in," Autry adds. "It's getting your suppliers to act more as collaborative partners than as transactional partners. They have to take a leap of faith also, that as a marketing and sales vehicle, we can create enough demand to justify their investment in the model."
Putterman will be rolling out ReGard products in various facilities in the coming months, giving organizations an outlet to tout their commitment to sustainability and serving as a demonstration of how such thinking is creating change on a larger level. Says Autry, "It becomes a true message of how you can use these things for good moving forward — to start that momentum."
This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of Athletic Business under the headline, "Spin the Bottles."