Cintas makes uniforms from bottles, plants to cater to business' eco-friendly initiatives

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the final part of a three-part series on Tri-State business sustainability initiatives that have inspired industry standards and ideas across the nation. 

MASON, Ohio – The person who checked you into your hotel room, took down your information at the hospital or parked your car at valet may have also diverted dozens of bottles from a landfill -- just with the clothes they had on.

You likely didn’t notice. It looked like any old suit. But the fashion team who designed it dedicated years to researching how to make a clothing line out of nothing but plastic bottles, and they’re still researching how to make clothing out of even more.

Cintas Corporation, known for manufacturing highly specialized items sold to about more than one million businesses nationwide, is behind a push to make businesses across the country more sustainable with the uniforms their employees wear.

Company representatives say its eco-friendly initiatives are in part because of its own philosophy, but also largely because of a growing demand from businesses that want to market more aspects of their operations as “green.”

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“Their customers are demanding it,” Mark Leahy, Cintas’ senior marketing manager of hospitality, said of the health care and hospitality industries.

It’s likely a customer wouldn’t expect the outfit worn at the front desk to be made from plastic bottles or fiber extracted from plants. Cintas representatives say that’s the point.

“It’s not as visible to the average traveler,” Leahy said.  “It’s the sales department that’s leveraging it as they’re trying to attract groups [to their hotels].”

The Mason-based company claims that more than five million people in the hospitality, health care, gaming and banking industries wear its uniforms every day. Ten employees work exclusively on designing those uniforms in Chicago. 

“One of our partners brought us the technology of breaking down the plastic bottles into particles and breaking it down further into yarn,” said Michelle Dortche, a Cintas designer who focuses on researching sustainable fabric options for the company.

A clothing line, called Regeneration, is one of five collections that Cintas sells, but it's the only one made from 100 percent recycled polyester. Each high-end suit, worn by employees of businesses like Marriott International Brands is made from 25 two liter bottles. 

"The fact that we can take the plastic bottles that we already have as a waste product and turn it into a uniform, you don't have to go through that process to create a brand new uniform with resources that are important to the environment," said Melanie Boyle, environmental sustainability manager at Cintas. 

Boyle said Cintas diverted 19,393,487 bottles from landfills last year by using them to make their products instead. The company breaks down that number even further for its clients. 

"We can provide a company with a report that shows how many they diverted from the landfill," Boyle said. "That's one thing we can do is provide a breakdown based on what they've purchased from us. It shows their environmental impact."

WATCH: How Plastic Bottles Become Fabric (Provided Video)

While the Regeneration line is the only collection made solely from bottles, all but one of Cintas' clothing lines is made from at least in part from recycled material. 

"We're trying to divert away from using petroleum [to make our clothes] and using renewable sources instead," said Dortche. 

Cintas released a new plant-based clothing line in April, called AR Red. In addition to wool and recycled polyester, the AR Red Suiting Collection is made with DuPont Sorona, an eco-friendly, plant-based fiber made with renewable, naturally occurring starch. The fabric reduces carbon dioxide emissions used in the manufacturing process by as much as 63 percent, a Cintas spokesperson said. 

Cintas designers say the collection is their highest-end clothing line, and also the most expensive. In fact, designers say clothes that use recycled fabric generally cost more to make. 

"The fiber costs a little bit more, but we try to balance out [the cost] by making the style not so complex," said Dortche. "We still need to bring it to the market because it's something we believe in."

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