Life After Denim

by Nathan Hurst

The Lifecycle of a Ubiquitous Fabric Reimagined
I once had the misfortune of sleeping in an unfinished shed, the insulation still exposed. When I woke up coughing in the middle of the night, it occurred to me that the pink fiberglass might be the cause of my nocturnal hacking.

At the time, I’d never heard of recycled denim insulation, though cotton has been used for insulation as far back as colonial times. Had the walls been packed with the re-spun blue cotton, my lungs might’ve been a little cleaner and the shed would’ve been in better stead. Recycled denim insulation is not only easier on the lungs; it also insulates heat and acoustics better and is more eco-friendly than fiberglass.

In fashion, denim crosses age, gender, nationality, and cultural groups. And there’s a lot of it; last year, Global Industry Analysts predicted the denim industry would reach $56 billion by 2018. About 750 million new pairs of jeans are sold each year.

Beloved as they are, jeans aren’t great for our ecosystem. A 2009 study by Levi’s assessed sustainability in the life cycle of blue jeans and found that, in the course of its life, one pair of jeans accounts for about as much CO2 as driving 78 miles, as much water as 53 showers, and as much energy as running a computer for 556 hours. Even recycling it requires resources for shipping.

That’s why some companies—most notably Phoenix Fibers and Bonded Logic, a pair of sister companies out of Arizona—are attempting to lengthen denim’s life cycle by repurposing it as insulation.

Phoenix Fibers gets most of their raw denim from used blue jeans, but some also comes from factory defects, counterfeit merchandise, and manufacturing scraps. The idea, says president and co-founder Tod Kean, is to turn it into a useful fiber without destroying it entirely. Buttons, zippers, and other non-cotton parts get pulled out. (Don’t ask how; it’s proprietary.) The denim is then fed into a series of cylinders with progressively finer pins sticking out of them, like a gentle shredder.

“A lot of people say it looks like the fuzz out of your laundry machine, or your dryer,” says Kean. “But it’s not. It has much more meat and potatoes, much more girth to it than that.”

The bales—each of which contains denim from around 600 pounds of jeans—get sold to the automotive industry, the bedding industry, and Bonded Logic. Bonded Logic treats the fibers with several nontoxic chemicals to retard fire and inhibit pests, mold, and mildew. Then the company mixes in a fibrous binder to form a web. When baked and cooled, the binder glues the denim fibers together to form the insulation.

“We’re always trying to convert any denim that’s going to ultimately end up in the landfill,” says Kean. “That’s one of the things we strive to do.”

Most of the denim Phoenix Fibers receives comes from Cotton Incorporated. The promotional group runs collection drives and picks up jeans that don’t get sold at secondhand stores. A couple years ago, Gap and Levi’s were both running recycling programs; though they no longer do, Phoenix Fibers still gets as much denim as they need.

“As of right now, we’re mostly only tapping the resources of the southwest,” says Sean Desmond, director of sales and marketing at Bonded Logic. “Unfortunately it’s just kind of a wasteful industry by nature.”

The Green Cocoon, an insulation installer in Massachusetts, sells Bonded Logic’s “UltraTouch” insulation. But they don’t sell a lot of it, says Office Manager Candace Lord. Denim insulation is more expensive, partially due to the intricate process required to create it. “People aren’t really willing to pay that kind of money for the product. A person would have to be really interested in being 100 percent green in order to pay for it.”

Still, the recycled denim industry is moving forward. New trends like increasing urban density make quality soundproofing more important—Bonded Logic also offers recycled denim acoustic panels. And jeans are no longer just made of cotton.

“As the consumer has more choices, and as they’re paying more money for denim, the blends of denim are becoming more sophisticated,” says Kean. “These people that make these fibers, there’s a lot of pressure on them to make these elaborate, very sophisticated blends. So what we’re focusing on is still maintaining the ability to reprocess that material.”