Safety products and services company Arco is supporting a new trial project to explore ways to recycle the polyester fabric used in workwear.

It has committed seed funding to partner start-up company Stuff4Life on the research and development of a “closed-loop, circular economy solution” for polyester workwear such as hi-vis.

The funding will enable Stuff4Life to commission a chemical recycling demonstration plant in collaboration with Teesside University in Middlesbrough, bringing on board its academic experts, world-leading research capabilities and state-of-the-art facilities.

The plant will recover the base compound terephthalic acid (TPA), which is used in the production of polyester fabric, from recycled workwear.

The recovered TPA will then be reincorporated into various manufacturing processes, with the goal of being able to manufacture new polyester to deliver “PPE for life” in the UK.

As part of the trial phase, Arco and Stuff4Life will collect, shred and transport up to six tonnes of end-of-line polyester, and polyester mix, garments.

The garments will then be recycled using chemical processes. Several batches of garments with different levels of polyester content will be put through the process and the results analysed, including the TPA quality.

If the initiative is successful, Arco and Stuff4Life will be able to support a circular economy for workwear. This would see the TPA created through the chemical recycling activity sold back into the virgin polyester manufacturing process, with volumes externally audited and validated.

Successfully recycling polyester and establishing an onshore UK supply chain would reduce the industry’s dependency on fossil fuels and find value in waste.

It will also significantly reduce pollution from the manufacturing process as recycled polyester uses 59% less energy compared to virgin polyester. If successful, it would help tackle the world’s climate crisis.

Nearly 90% of the 33 million workwear garments supplied annually end up in landfills or are incinerated. Many of these items are made from polyester, a plastic-based fabric that uses an estimated 342 million barrels of oil every year to make.

With a limited product lifetime and little to no infrastructure for recycling and manufacturing in the UK, workwear has a high social and environmental impact.

John Twitchen, director of Stuff4Life, said: “The humble hi-vis is an essential item for everyone working in hazardous environments, from mending roads and collecting bins to saving people at sea or up mountains.

“The impact of polyester as a linear make-use-dispose garment is significant, but by recycling it those impacts can be substantially reduced whilst keeping all the performance benefits from using synthetic fibres.”

Dr David Hughes, associate professor in Teesside University’s School of Computing, Engineering and Digital Technologies, added: “Polymers no doubt have a hugely important role in the future of energy, resources, food, health and infrastructure. However, we need to decouple from a use and dispose economy to a circular, sustainable one.

“This project builds on Teesside’s 20 years of experience in research into environmental and sustainable engineering technologies. We are hugely proud to be working with Stuff4life and Arco to make a real difference to the future of polymer sustainability.”

David Evison, managing director of Hull-based Arco, said: “As a fifth-generation family business, Arco has always put corporate and social responsibility at the heart of the organisation.

“Our involvement with Stuff4Life and Teesside University is an opportunity to make a real difference to the environmental and social impacts of workwear and to use our scale and product development capabilities to drive an effective circular economy, supporting local regeneration and ensuring we protect more people and the planet.”