Polartec’s Power Fill synthetic insulation is now 100 percent recycled, with hollow fibers made entirely from reused plastic water bottles. When Polartec debuted the insulation in 2017, it was made from 80 percent recycled materials. “We’ve remained laser-focused on how to overcome the technical challenges” of making 100 percent recycled insulation, says Michael Cattanach, Polartec’s global product director.
It’s not a huge leap, numbers-wise: the company already had a higher percentage of recycled fibers than anyone else in the industry. But according to Cattanach, closing that final 20 percent gap wasn’t simple. It came down to the melting point of the recycled fibers. Bonding them together to create insulation with enough integrity requires heat, and some of the materials had low melting points, making it necessary to add in some virgin material as well. Polartec ultimately found a new technique that sidesteps those temperature limitations, though they declined to describe it, citing the proprietary nature of their process.
Several apparel brands, including Bight Gear, Blackyak, Giro, and Goldwin, have signed on to make products using Power Fill insulation. Peter Whittaker, Bight Gear founder and a co-owner of guiding service Rainier Mountaineering, says that he prototyped a synthetic puffy belay coat with several different types of insulation. Power Fill was the warmest. “To have a material that’s fully functional and also environmentally friendly is pretty incredible,” he says.
Polartec isn’t the only company manufacturing insulation from recycled materials. PrimaLoft makes its Gold, Silver, and Black synthetics with varying amounts of recycled plastic, from 50 to 70 percent. But Polartec is the first to go fully recycled. “Any time a leader makes that kind of commitment, it sends a powerful signal to the market,” says Jason Kibbey, CEO of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. “It’s critical in creating tipping points, where the whole market shifts to more sustainable practices.”
Of course, making insulation out of recycled plastic does little to solve the issue of microfilaments—tiny plastic fragments that are shed by garments (particularly polyester ones) in the wash and then make their way to the ocean. “While there are trade-offs and impacts associated with every material, recycled polyester is certainly a superior alternative to material comprised of virgin resources,” says Beth Jensen, senior director of sustainable business innovation at the Outdoor Industry Association. “This announcement should help a number of outdoor brands achieve their recycled-content goals and promote the use of recycled polyester throughout the industry.”