Good Gear: How NEMO Made its Top-Selling Sleeping Bag Fully Recyclable

Every year retired outdoor gear ends up in a landfill. For much of the outdoor stuff we use, this is inevitable—recycling gear at the end of its life can be difficult when it’s made from many different materials, some of which can’t be saved from the landfill. So it was no small feat when camping brand NEMO recently debuted the first-ever fully recyclable iteration of its best-selling sleeping bag, the Forte.  

This new Forte is the first product available in NEMO’s new Endless Promise series, a line of gear reimagined to be recyclable. Its launch marks an important step toward the brand’s commitment to cut its emissions intensity in half by 2030. “Any product in the Endless Promise series has a vetted pathway for repair, resell, recommerce, takeback and recycling when you really can’t keep it out there anymore,” says Theresa McKenney, director of sustainability at NEMO.  

Of course, “recyclable” doesn’t mean you can just toss your bag into the weekly bins with your soda cans. So, what can you do? Read on for a closer look at the rethought Forte bag, the adjustments that make it recyclable and how the Endless Promise series is paving the way for a less wasteful future.  

What’s the problem with sleeping bags? 

For centuries, pioneers, explorers, and native tribes used sleeping bags constructed from wool-lined sheepskin or reindeer fur. But while these animal-based creations kept people warm, they were heavy and bulky—which wouldn’t exactly please the modern camper. In 1930, humans invented nylon—the first fully synthetic fiber—and camping forever changed.  

Today, most sleeping bag shells are made from nylon or polyester. These manufactured fibers are quick-drying, lightweight, and affordable, all while remaining breathable. However, they come at an environmental cost, as they’re petroleum-derived, meaning their production relies on the fossil-fuel industry.  

Synthetic fibers are also not biodegradable. When your bag reaches the end of its life and you toss it in the garbage, it heads to a landfill where it sits … and sits … and sits some more. It sits in the landfill indefinitely, all the while emitting greenhouse methane gasses into the atmosphere and leaching dyes into our water and soil. 

Plastic is great at what it does, says McKenney. But its performance benefits come at a cost. 

What’s the technology behind the redesigned NEMO Forte? 

Four years after it was founded, NEMO began taking steps to lessen its environmental footprint in 2006 by eliminating a primary component of plastic, PVCs (or polyvinyl chloride, some types of which can pose risks to human health and the environment) from its products. In 2018, the brand shifted its approach to the filling that goes in sleeping bag shells by incorporating hydrophobic down without the use of PFAS, harmful “forever chemicals” found in many waterproof and “nonstick” products. But those changes weren’t enough—and NEMO knew it. NEMO began using recycled polyester in 2009, and the design team knew it was a step forward to avoid relying on virgin petroleum. But the resulting sleeping bags still faced the same end-of-life issues because they couldn’t be further recycled into new ones. NEMO needed to figure out how to create a system where the entire product could be recycled. 

“We needed to take ownership of the materials by using this wealth of stuff that’s already out there,” says McKenney.  

That’s when the folks at NEMO began considering thermomechanical recycling, a process that involves grinding and pulverizing a textile, melting it down and extruding fibers that can be used to make a different product. While many brands use polyester derived from recycled plastic bottles (bottle-to-fiber recycling), NEMO opted for fiber-to-fiber thermomechanical recycling to transform one textile into another. “It embodies true circularity,” says Patrick McCluskey, chief engineer of product sustainability at NEMO. 

Research teams at NEMO also learned that polyester is the most recycled polymer in the world. Why? Because of its durability within the recycling process. This was good news for the brand, which uses polyester in many of its products, from sleeping pads to camp chairs.  

But there was a catch. Only single-material textiles can be successfully recycled. In the 21st century, it’s rare that a textile product is made using just one material. For example, yoga pants are often a cozy blend of polyester and elastane. 

For construction and performance, this isn’t a problem. But two polymers can’t be easily separated into different waste streams, making recycling impossible for blended materials.  

NEMO went back to the drawing board, redesigning the best-selling synthetic sleeping bag, the Forte, from just one material: polyester. (The zipper slider is the only feature not constructed from polyester. These pieces will be removed and recycled separately.)  

This wasn’t an easy process. A typical sleeping bag may include anywhere from 10 to15 different polymers. NEMO cycled through 15 different sleeping bag designs before settling on the final product. The brand even had to find new suppliers and create its own hardware. 

“Every detail of the materials going into the product has to be scrutinized, down to the finishing treatments applied to the fabrics and every piece of trim and label that is included,” explains McCluskey. “A lot of the materials on the previous Forte sleeping bag needed to be replaced or updated to enable recycling, so we needed to find new fabrics, components, cords and webbing.”  

The brand successfully worked out the kinks, eventually partnering with US-based Unifi, a textile manufacturer specializing in recycled materials, for their thermomechanical recycling.  

“Working through all these small details allowed us to take the recycling of the Forte Endless Promise from concept to reality,” says McCluskey. 

Now, NEMO has a sleeping bag that can be fully recycled when the time comes. 

How do you recycle your Endless Promise products? 

The answers to your questions about recycling your NEMO Forte are right inside the bag itself. And are there alternatives to recycling if your bag still has a few camping trips left in it? Again, the inside of your NEMO Forte has the answer.  

When you unzip your new Endless Promise Forte you’ll find a QR code: This is your password for any future transactions. If you use the bag for years and find yourself with a few tears or rips, no big deal. Scan that code for instructions to get in touch with the NEMO repair program, so you can get your sleeping bag fixed and back outside. 

One day you may decide you’d like a new sleeping bag, but you know your Forte has some life left in it. NEMO has a plan for that, too. NEMO customers can return their gently used gear for potential resale through a partnership with Trove. (Or you can trade it in through REI Co-op’s ReSupply program.) Not only will your gear go on to a new home where it will continue to be loved, but you’ll also get a NEMO gift card for the exchanged value. Just scan that same QR code to learn how to trade in your sleeping bag.  

“Endless Promise offers services that have the necessary levels structured in for keeping the product in use for as long as possible,” says Rachel McQueen, an associate professor who specializes in textile science and sustainability at the University of Alberta. “Resale keeps the product in use as the same product it was originally designed to be.” 

Eventually, the Forte sleeping bag won’t have any repairs or resale value left; that’s when it’s time to recycle it. Again, use your QR code to start the process, letting NEMO know you’re ready to recycle the ‘bag. NEMO will send you a free return shipping label so you can pack up your sleeping bag, give it a kiss goodbye and send it back to the brand. Upon receipt, NEMO will ensure all components go to the proper location for recycling. As a thank you for doing your part to keep waste out of landfills, NEMO will send you a $20 gift card. 

“It’s an incentive to make it worthwhile for the consumer to return the product back to the company, so the company can take back control of end of-life,” says McQueen. “Because once a brand sells an item, they can’t guarantee that it will be recycled at its end-of-life unless they manage that part of the lifecycle as well.” 

This easy, QR code system is intentional. NEMO knows the recycling process needed to be simple and structured for it to be effective. The brand also knows that recycling should be the last resort; the goal is to keep its sleeping bags in use for as long as possible. 

“The Endless Promise line is a big deal. It’s always great to find brands like them that are creating this type of textile product with their lifecycle management system built in,” says McQueen. 

NEMO plans to add to its Endless Promise line in 2024 with the release of the Vantage and Resolve day packs, as well as three sleeping bags: the redesigned Disco and Riff Spoon-shape bags and the new Coda mummy-shaped bag. 

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