EP26 – Koen De Ruyck, Purfi Manufacturing, Pioneering in the realm of recycled textiles  

For this 26th episode of our Ellie.Talks podcast, we had the chance to talk to Koen De Ruyck, General Manager of Purfi Manufacturing, a technology company dedicated to transforming waste into high-quality products.  

In this episode, Julie and Koen dive into the topic of pioneering the recycling of textiles, one of the key pillars to transform both the textiles and fashion industry towards a more sustainable future.  

Discover the key takeaways from this episode here or find a summary of all topics discussed during the episode below. 

Key takeaways 

  • Purfi technology focuses on soft mechanical recycling, focused on rejuvenating the textile fibers, and retaining the fibers’ length and strength.  
  • The time to act is now, the technology and know-how are here, so is the momentum to demonstrate the opportunities for recycling.  
  • The way forward focuses on practical steps instead of theoretical ideas. 
  • Purfi prioritizes long-term strategic partnerships over short-term sales.  
  • Europe has a pivotal role in this circular ambition by establishing clear schedules and eco-design expectations by 2025, fostering unity and emphasizing recycled content in high-quality products as well as ensuring equivalent importation rules outside Europe is vital to maintaining a level playing field.  
  • Despite initial cost differences, increasing volumes will enhance the cost competitiveness of recycled materials. 

Engaging in discussions on the bike about… textiles 

Koen is a textile engineer passionate about textiles. With 35 years of experience, he has seen a recent evolution in the industry. Previously focused on quality, price, and delivery, the sector is now increasingly interested in recycling and exploring the end-of-life possibilities of garments and other woven or knitted products. Keen to innovate, Koen is on a mission to reuse existing materials to create new products. Koen combines his passion for textiles with a love for cycling, where possible, together with fellow textiliens, creating the perfect occasions for engaging discussions about… textiles!    

‘I’m very eager to see the possibilities offered by existing textiles and to create new ones with it.’ – Koen 

Purfi, a one-of-its-kind investment 

Purfi was launched in 2019 with a vision led by Carl Baekelandt, the CEO of Concordia Textiles.  

Recognizing the growing significance of textile recycling, Carl spearheaded a partnership with the American company, and technology holder, Purfi Global. This collaboration combined Concordia’s extensive textile knowledge and expertise, together with the unique ‘Rejuvenating’ technology of Purfi.    

Starting from scratch, a 160-meter recycling line was installed, marking a one-of-a-kind installation, exclusive to Purfi and housed in Concordia’s building, where Purfi rents 2000 square meters. This pioneering machine has a yearly capacity of 3000 tons for the recycling of textiles.    

Purfi’s focus is on partnerships and not on selling technology, aiming to collaborate with like-minded companies invested in the transformative potential of textile recycling for a sustainable future. 

‘I’m not selling fibers; I’m selling a concept and a partnership to companies who believe that recycling will change the near future and textiles.’ – Koen 

Rejuvenation vs Recycling   

When discussing the distinction between rejuvenation and recycling, Koen highlights that the term ‘recycling’ is often associated with downcycling in most instances. At Purfi, the emphasis is on upcycling instead of downcycling.   

They deliberated on ways to improve and landed on the concept of rejuvenation, aiming to restore fibers to their youthful state. This philosophy drives Purfi’s commitment to rejuvenating fibers for a circular world, leading them to consistently use the term ‘rejuvenation’ over ‘recycling’. 

Revolutionizing textile recycling with Purfi’s approach 

Koen mentions the study that McKinsey recently conducted for the European organization Euratex, investigating various technologies in the market. These include chemical recycling for polyesters and cotton, thermal mechanical processes that involve melting chips and reforming them into filament yarn, and traditional mechanical recycling, which involves high-force shredding for non-woven or automotive purposes.  

In contrast, Purfi’s approach, labelled ‘soft mechanical recycling’ by McKinsey, operates differently. Their 150 to 160-meter-long machine delicately untwists various fabrics—woven, knitted, or non-woven—slowly turning them back into yarn via a process called reverse spinning. This method retains the fibers’ length and strength, making them highly valuable to spinning companies, like virgin materials.  

Purfi’s technology has made a significant impact on the recycling industry, reshaping perspectives. Over the past three to four years, there’s been growing recognition and interest in Purfi’s work and its outcomes. This interest is particularly evident among spinners who see numerous opportunities, including the production of finer yarns—ranging not just in 20-number metrics but also in 40 and 50-number metrics, or the equivalent of 24 to 30 numbers in English measurements. This allows blends of 30%, 50%, or even 70% recycled fibers.    

Purfi’s vision for global impact 

Purfi aimed to rejuvenate up to 10 billion pounds of fibre annually, a pioneering step in recycling and upscaling. While this remains a substantial goal, their current pilot machine handles 3000 tons per year.  However, they plan to expand globally, including textile-centric regions like India and Bangladesh.  Additional capacity in Europe is anticipated pending legislative alignment with industry targets, always building upon long-term, strategic partnerships.  

Pioneering Sustainable Innovation, in an awaiting market. 

At A+A 2023, the international trade fair for safety and health at work, Koen observed a significant shift in company actions towards sustainability compared to mere talk two years prior. Purfi and Concordia collaborated to create technical fabrics for French firefighters, incorporating 30% recycled content and 70% virgin material. Rigorous testing affirmed that these fabrics maintained technical standards despite the recycled content.  

While there’s genuine commercial interest in technical fabrics, the market adoption remains focused and somewhat limited, with companies awaiting broader developments. Nonetheless, some promising customers seek exclusivity on Purfi’s products, showcasing their belief in the company’s mission and indicating potential collaborations for the next five to ten years. 

The importance of collaboration 

As he explains, Koen’s role at Purfi revolves around fostering partnerships and solutions, not selling fibres. The company aims for a closed-loop system, collaborating with dedicated recycling partners across the textile supply chain, including sorters, rejuvenation specialists, spinners, weavers, knitters, and brands. Together, they target integrating 25-30% recycled content in new products. Priority is given to partners with a long-term commitment to sustainability, emphasizing a future-oriented approach over immediate gains.   

In Purfi’s collaboration with customers, long-term commitment is crucial for Koen, along with expertise in handling recycled materials. Collaboration typically begins with spinners like European Spinning Group, focusing on partnering with proficient companies to prevent unintended damage to fibres during spinning. Koen stresses local collaboration to cut global textile transportation, rejuvenating fibres within a 25-km radius, and partnering with nearby suppliers.  

For us, it’s essential that the companies who want to be part of the partnership really believe in the story and want to invest for the long term rather than for short-term profit. – Koen 

Did you know? Ellie.Connect offers a tool for locating local partners for setting up recycling projects, including Purify within the platform. 

Purfi’s vision for a circular Europe 

Purfi is involved in several innovation projects, including Textended, a EU Horizon 2020 project. The project aims to optimize waste collection, sorting methods, and mechanical recycling (both traditional and Purfi’s soft mechanical) to showcase fiber, yarn, and product outcomes beneficial for brands. While diverse projects are ongoing, Koen sees an opportunity to consolidate expertise into a unified European initiative, highlighting unparalleled collaborative possibilities. Digital platforms like Ellie.Connect can be used to centralize knowledge and disseminate it throughout Europe.   

Moreover, Europe’s pivotal role in this circular ambition is crucial for Koen. He advocates for establishing clear schedules and eco-design expectations by 2025, fostering unity and emphasizing recycled content in high-quality products. Ensuring equivalent importation rules outside Europe is vital to maintaining a level playing field.  

Practical solutions over theoretical ideas  

Koen appreciates and is inspired by companies that embody real passion and practicality, focusing on the essentials rather than theoretical ideas. Purify focuses on simple, workable solutions, such as using existing European spinning technology, rather than complex innovations.  

This pragmatic approach fosters a proactive attitude, urging the industry to embrace recycling challenges promptly. Instead of relying solely on certifications like GRS or greenwashing, Purfi prioritizes tangible achievements, advocating for pioneering recycling initiatives.  

The key lies in measured progress, resembling the paper business’s evolution over three decades. Incremental quality advancements without the pressure for constant records promote sustainable growth.    

The time to act is NOW. 

Koen emphasizes the opportune time to convey the comprehensive solutions and knowledge available concerning textile issues across Europe. 

‘It’s the right timing to go for it and to jump in it and to show worldwide what the possibilities are with recycled content.’ – Koen 

Looking ahead to the future of recycling, Koen highlights the need for support from forward-thinking brands. Within a year or two, larger brands can showcase the viability of using recycled content in yarns, despite initial cost disparities. With increasing volumes, the cost competitiveness with virgin materials will naturally improve. 

If this episode has inspired you, you can contact Purfi via Ellie.Connect.