Japan is many things. Almost everyone can find it appealing in a way. Some people come here for gastronomic tours, others want to immerse themselves into unique culture. The number of anime tour providers is constantly increasing. And of course, Akihabara is a must-visit for technologies fans.
Japan is also a fashion hub. It has given life to several distinct trends that traveled far beyond its borders. To name a few: dark and while lolitas, Harajuku style, Ganguro girls, Visual Kei. Moreover, Japan is home to UNIQLO, a vast and still growing network of daily clothes for everyone. And we cannot omit the fact that Yoji Yamamoto made the world crazy about avant-garde tailoring.
With such a massive input into clothes production Japan also makes a massive input into textile waste production. While there is a rising trend to sell used clothes to the second-hand shops or donate them to charity, recycling covers only 10% of the total amount of textile waste. Other 90% ends up in landfills or in incinerators. That is 1.97 million tons per year. It is enough to fill three baseball stadiums to the top with those used textiles.
Recycling covers only 10% of the total amount of textile waste. Other 90% ends up in landfills or in incinerators. That is 1.97 million tons per year.
One more thing to consider is the raw materials used for production. Production of cotton clothes demands a lot of water. For example a T-shirt costs 2,700 liters of water, a pair of jeans – anywhere between 7,000 and 11,000 liters. Acrylic, polyester, nylon, spandex textiles go easier on our water supplies, but as petroleum-based materials do not solve the issue of natural resources preservation and final utilization. Some of them also produce a lot of micro-plastic during the decay ending up in the ecosystem. However, this time it is completely invisible.
Closing the Loop
JEPLAN Inc., or Japan Environmental Planning, has come up with the solution. Born in 2007 in Tokyo, the company came to life thanks to Masaki Takao, the CEO of JAPLAN and a trained chemist who came up with the method to “make clothes from clothes”. The core principle of his technology is breaking old clothes into raw pulp and spinning the fibers anew.
Mr. Takao called this process depolymerization (breaking down). Then comes decolorization and polymerization (construction of new fiber). As the result JEPLAN produces four different types of materials: BHET flakes (or bis hydroxyethyl terephthalate), PET resin, polyester yarn, and polyester fabric. They can be used to produce the same types of clothes and materials that were recycled and to preserve their initial properties but without using more oil or emitting harfull gases .
This technology makes it possible to reuse the same materials over and over. However, in order to get this cycle going, JEPLAN had to accumulate enough textile waste to start the loop. This was one of the major challenges for the company. How to make the complicated chemistry behind the idea attractive to consumers? They have solved it in a very creative way.
The Power of Marketing
Today, recycling boxes for JEPLAN factories can be found in stores of 70 clothes retailers, including MUJI (Ryohin Keikaku Co.), AEON Co., Marui Group and others. It took a lot of time and effort to get these companies as partners. And it would not have happened without the creativity of JEPLAN’s members.
In 2009, the company was able to obtain the support of the Ministry of Trade and Industry as well as the Organization for Small and Medium Enterprises and Regional Innovation. Using their support JEPLAN ran a trial projects named “Bring!” to promote textile recycling and collect material to start the loop. Starting with the smaller shops JEPLAN has shown consumers that there are other options to throwing the old clothes away. It was followed by “Bring Pla-Plus Project” that collected old plastic toys and stationary.
In order to demonstrate what can be achieved with the recycling, JEPLAN used pop-culture to deliver the message. They ran “GO! DeLorean” project where the DeLorean car was stylized to look exactly as shown in the “Back to the Future” movies. It ran on bio-ethanol fuel produced from the recycled T-shirts. (In the movie at some point it ran on household garbage.)
The participants could sit in the car, start the engine and get the picture of them during this exciting moment. This event was so successful that the company collected the year-worth amount of textile waste in under three months. By the way, that T-shirt-powered DeLorean is available for rent.
With the support of the government and major players in the retail industry JEPLAN was able to make to the finals of the Startup World Cup 2019 by winning the Japan round. They passed 150 applicants and beat nine competitors in the final round. During the World Cup JEPLAN will be competing against 40 other participants. The winner will get USD 1 million as a prize and a lot of exposure to investors.
The Startup World Cup started three years ago. And in 2017 Japanese Unifa from Nagoya was the winner. Japan claimed its strength right from the beginning, setting the expectation bar high for the next Japanese contestants but also securing the attention of the potential investors. Regardless of the competition outcome JEPLAN has great changes of meeting the right people to support their ideas.