The foundational principle of zero waste has become more visible at this year’s WM WM Phoenix Open.
Thousands upon thousands of plastic water bottles recycled at last year’s event – the most-attended on the PGA Tour – have been transformed into logoed shirts being displayed and sold near the front of the massive merchandise tent at TPC Scottsdale.
The special line from Peter Millar is part of a joint initiative with another North Carolina-based company: Repreve, which has turned more than 35 billion recycled plastic bottles into sustainable polyester through cutting-edge textile technology since its founding in 2007.
A high-end golf brand using Repreve’s sustainable polyester isn’t unique. Other well-known names do.
But a company like Peter Millar, recognized by NGF as one of the Top 100 businesses in golf, doing so in such a visible way brings more awareness to tournament sponsor WM’s efforts that make the Phoenix Open the largest zero-waste sporting event in the world. And provides a tangible example of the circularity of recycling and reuse. Twenty-seven discarded water bottles that a year ago might have been hauled out of a recycling bin at the world-famous 16th hole have now become a keepsake shirt with a WM logo that was eagerly snatched up by a fan.
“What’s so impressive is the amount of steps it takes to get (the material) into our factory, but what’s interesting is how this whole project really challenged Peter Millar,” the company’s director of marketing, Courtney Wilson, said during a walkthrough of the merchandise tent at the WM Phoenix Open.
“This whole project has really opened our eyes,” Wilson added. “It’s been an initiative of ours to become more sustainable with our practices, and the fashion industry in general does not have good reputation as far as reducing and reusing. We are trying to get better at that.”
The pattern of the special apparel line includes nods to the tournament – logos of the 16th hole and the Thunderbirds organization that runs the event – as well as various food and beverage graphics and other signature elements of the Phoenix area, like the saguaro cactus found throughout the course at TPC Scottsdale.
The process that turns a crunchy, empty water bottle into a soft fabric involves a lot of steps, but it’s one that’s become routine for Repreve, which sees its recycled performance fibers used by brands worldwide and is wholly owned by Unifi, one of the world’s leading textile manufacturers.
Material from the tournament goes through an initial sortation process at off-site facilities, where 500-pound bales are broken open by industrial equipment to separate various bottles and other items. Infrared sortation can determine if a laundry detergent container, for example, was mistakenly mixed in. Plastic labels are removed and other byproducts – caps, rings, aluminum, etc. – are taken out and sent to other outlet streams.
The water bottles are cleaned and ground up into a clear flake that is either sold to external customers or is used to make Repreve yarn. Just to get to the flake stage, the amount of washing and sortation is so intensive that it’s able to be used into a number of food contact end uses.
There are several more stages before fibers become fabric.
The flake is melted in an extruder – almost like chocolate in a double boiler. Heated to 550 degrees, the flake goes from a solid to a molten polyester polymer. There are additional filtration stages (critical when many of the filaments are going to be finer than a piece of hair), with the emerging polymer cut up into balls or cubes of resin. This solid will become liquid again, fed into a big metal cylinder and spun, eventually extruded through what looks like a big showerhead. Instead of water, however, it is molten polymer that is stretched like taffy into small strands of continuous filament, bundled together and wound up as a lubricant is applied.
The final step is texturizing. This ensures the soft feel characteristics ultimately needed for the final garment, before the fabric manufacturer – Peter Millar in the WM collaboration example – produces, dyes and prints the fabric that is turned into the golf shirts or lightweight hoodies sold at the merchandise tent.
While it might not be fully appreciated by many fans at the tournament, the end product is a source of pride for the companies involved when it comes to quality standards, performance attributes and, of course, more awareness of sustainability practices within the golf fashion space.
“It has to be comfortable for the sport and it has to feel great to showcase that Repreve is delivering on that without being from virgin petrochemical resources,” said Meredith Boyd, a chemist by trade who is the Executive Vice President and Chief Product Officer of Repreve’s parent company, Unifi.
“This collection just showcases that so wonderfully. It means Repreve, in particular, is engineered to be at that highest quality standard. I think it helps folks understand recycled does not mean lower quality.”