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Export Regulations Shredding Clothing Nets Big Rewards for Phoenix Fibers

By Todd Williams
For Phoenix Fibers the phrase “rags to riches” is both literally and figuratively true.

This Chandler, Arizona-based closed-loop recycling firm is experiencing solid growth in its business of shredding clothing and other textiles, providing a unique service to apparel manufacturers, retail outlets, corporate clients, law enforcement, and any other business or organization that needs to dispose of garments.

Opening its doors in July 2011, Phoenix is the newest addition to a group of recycling companies including United Fibers and Bonded Logic.

Jim Kean, principal founder of United Fibers; son, Mike Kean, General manager of United; and Tod Kean, Managing Partner for Phoenix and Bonded, have an extensive background in manufacturing and recycling dating back 30 years.

According to the company, United Fibers has become the Southwest United States’ largest producer of secondary cellulose products made from recycled paper. In fact, Jim Kean was one of the pioneers in the use of cellulose fiber in the production of insulation. The cellulose fiber insulation made by United is called UltraTouch Nature Blend Cellulose.

Tod Kean explains that Phoenix Fibers was founded in order to provide a stable source of raw material for Bonded Logic’s business of manufacturing denim cloth-based insulation under the name of UltraTouch Denim. This premium material is used to insulate homes and businesses.

The raw fiber is also sold in bulk for use in appliance insulation, automotive insulation including trunk liners and door panels, acoustical sound dampening products, radiant heat barriers, prison mattresses, consumer mattresses, floor padding and pillow fill, just to name a few.

“We used to procure our raw material for the production of insulation from other shredders. But because of instability in both prices and supply, we decided to open Phoenix to become vertically integrated by controlling our own source of raw materials,” Kean explains.

As one of the few textile fiber converters in the Southwestern U.S. Phoenix shreds and processes over two million pounds of textile waste per month into a product know as “shoddy.” This material is used by Bonded Logic to make its building insulation, or sold in bulk to companies producing the other products.

Kean explains that the bulk material is sold in 600-pound bundles and is priced by the pound. He adds that the price for shoddy has remained stable for the past 15 years or so.

Kean says the raw material in the form of uniforms and other clothing is sent to the Arizona plant in 20-ton truckloads on pallets, where it is first hand sorted according to fabric type. The material is then machine cut into one-inch by one-inch squares. The cut cloth then enters a shredder, where it is sliced by a series of five rotating cylinders with teeth. The shredded material then goes into the baling machining where it is compressed and bound with twine. The finished shoddy is stored until sold or sent to Bonded Logic for insulation manufacturing.

The 90,000-square-foot facility is home to 40 employees who run three shredder lines operating three shifts, five days per week. The facility processes two tons of textiles per hour.

According to Larry Williams, Director of Marketing and Sales at United Fiber, clothing is sent to Phoenix by the truckload from all over Arizona as well as other locations across the country for shredding. Before this happens however, a proprietary process removes all button, zippers and tags. The material must be dry and unsoiled.

“Our process of removing these items from the clothing is important because recycling of post consumer clothing has been difficult due to this contamination issue,” Kean adds.

In addition to removing these items, Phoenix also recycles all the cardboard, paper and plastic packaging that was used to wrap new clothing, such as shirts.

About 50 percent of the shredded cloth is sent over to Bonded Logic’s 120,000-square-foot plant for manufacturing into insulation and the other half of the material is sold for other purposes.

To Williams, shredding clothing is as important as shredding documents.

“If you shred your documents, then why not do the same with your uniforms? Companies are beginning to realize that uniforms can help people gain access to places they shouldn’t be. For example, there was a case where Somali pirates hijacked a ship wearing stolen uniforms to gain access,” he recounts.

Williams says some of their biggest clients are entities such as the US Postal Service, United Parcel Service, IKEA, Bank of America, Pets Mart and Brinks, just to name a few. Phoenix does a brisk business in shredding damaged garments, obsolete fabrics, counterfeit clothing or product recalls. It also has started accepting linens from hotels and resorts.

In addition to corporate clients, Phoenix gets tons of donated material through its partner Cotton, Inc. that runs a program called Blue Jeans Go Green. This program, started in 2006, garners old blue jeans from collection boxes all over the country and then ships the material to Phoenix for shredding and processing into insulation at Bonded Logic. A portion of this UltraTouch Denim insulation is then donated to Habitat For Humanity as well as to grants awarded to civic institutions.

Kean notes that at the end of 2013, the Blue Jeans Go Green program received its one-millionth piece of donated denim. To date, the project has diverted 600 tons of denim from landfills and donated over 250,000 square feet of insulation to Habitat For Humanity affiliates and grant award recipients.

“One of the best things about our business as well as the Blue Jeans Go Green program is keeping all that clothing out of landfills. It costs $30 to $100 per ton to put it in a landfill. This is also much better for the environment,” Kean says.

Recently Phoenix, United and Bonded became involved in a program that has proved to be very effective and could be considered a model residential recycling program for the rest of the country. The small town of Queen Creek, Arizona is the first city in the nation to operate a municipal curbside clothing recycling initiative.

Williams explains that Queen Creek residents are able to recycle materials like clothing, towels, sheets, blankets and shoes by putting them in a special bag placed into their regular curbside recycling bin. The textiles are taken to Phoenix for shredding then to Bonded Logic for manufacturing of insulation.

Williams says he believes residential programs like this can work all over the country and are needed.

“This is a major next step in recycling, and has the synergy to make a real impact. The town of Queen Creek earns back payment on the tonnage and that helps to pay for waste disposal and Boys & Girls Club of Queen Creek services, and it keeps rates down for residents,” he adds.

On the commercial end of the business, notes Williams, customers who need fabric disposed have very few options. Obviously, one is to send it to a shredder company like Phoenix, dispose of it in landfills or send it to a third world country. He notes most companies are shying away from the third option because of negative branding issues associated with shipping clothing overseas

With 12 million tons of textile waste being generated in North America each year (68 pounds per household), the EPA estimates that 5% of all landfill waste is comprised of textiles. And, notes Williams, states like California are putting even tighter restrictions on landfills, making textile disposal very difficult.

Kean says tighter restrictions on landfills by states and the growing demand for reliable and less expensive products, has helped drive his family’s recycling businesses.

“This isn’t a granola type environmental thing. This is a real business that has an impact on the environment,” says Kean.

“Word of mouth and individual knowledge of the industry has led us to a very steady growth in our company. I see this continuing,” he adds.

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