Innovation That Matters

Polyethylene could be used to make a more sustainable fabric of the future | Photo source MIT

Engineers turn plastic into breathable material

Fashion & Beauty

Engineers have developed a way to turn polyethylene into wearable fabric with a low environmental footprint

Spotted: Plastic bags may not seem like a great choice for breathable, moisture-wicking fabric, but engineers from MIT have developed a way to turn polyethylene, the material from which most plastic bags are made, into silky, lightweight fibres that can absorb and evaporate water more quickly than common textiles such as cotton, nylon, and polyester. 

The research team, led by Svetlana Boriskina, a research scientist in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, started by using standard textile manufacturing equipment to heat and extrude powdered polyethylene in the form of thin fibres, similar to strands of spaghetti. These fibres were then bunched together to make a weavable yarn. They found that the method created space between fibres, which formed capillaries through which water molecules could be passively absorbed and wicked away.

After modelling the properties of the fibres, the team found that the wicking ability could be improved even more, by using fibres of a certain diameter and aligned in specific directions throughout the yarn. Yarn optimised in this way was actually more moisture-wicking than cotton, nylon and polyester. They also developed a way to colour the fibres by adding coloured particles into the powdered polyethylene, before extruding the material. 

In addition to developing a new textile, Boriskina hopes that the method could provide an incentive to recycle plastic bags. She points out that, “Once someone throws a plastic bag in the ocean, that’s a problem. But those bags could easily be recycled, and if you can make polyethylene into a sneaker or a hoodie, it would make economic sense to pick up these bags and recycle them.”

It is now an accepted fact that the textile industry is hugely unsustainable, using vast amounts of land and water, not to mention harsh chemicals. So, it is no surprise that a large number of innovators are focusing on ways to make the industry more sustainable. These have recently included sustainable cashmere and a fashion house that designs exclusively with plastic from landfills.

Written By: Lisa Magloff

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