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Recycling plastic bags into performance fabrics

Researchers from the department of engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) highlights that polyethylene (PE) fabrics show ultra-lightweight, low material cost and recyclability, and need less energy to produce than polyester and cotton.

Figure: Researchers recycle plastic bags into performance fabrics.

Scientists have modified polyethylene – a substantial usually used in plastic bags – into fibers, yarns and fabrics with prospective for sportswear applications and a lesser environmental effect than some orthodox textiles.

According to the study, published in Nature Sustainability, other backings contain fast-drying performance, outstanding stain resistance and the capability to dry-dye during fabrication.

Previously, the main preventive of using polyethylene as a wearable textile was its hydrophobic properties, which halt it from absorbing water or sweat, or even old-style inks and dyes.

Though, the researchers found that extruding polyethylene into thin fibers somewhat oxidized the material so that it became weakly hydrophilic and able to attract water molecules to its surface.

Merging numerous polyethylene fibers to make a yarn left spaces between the fibers through which water molecules could be drawn, with this new wicking ability enhanced by combining fibers of a certain diameter and aligning them in specific directions.

The challenge of adding color was overcome by putting colored particles into the powdered polyethylene before extrusion into fibers – negating the need for solutions of harsh chemicals.

Svetlana Boriskina, a research scientist in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering says, “We can color polyethylene fibers in a completely dry fashion, and at the end of their life cycle, we could meltdown, centrifuge, and recover the particles to use again.”

The MIT team used the Higg Index life cycle assessment tool to calculate the environmental footprint for PE fabrics in the production stage.

Boriskina explains, “Polyethylene has a lower melting temperature so you don’t have to heat it as much as other synthetic polymer materials to make yarn, for example. ”

“Synthesis of raw polyethylene also releases less greenhouse gas and waste heat than a synthesis of more conventional textile materials such as polyester or nylon. Cotton also takes a lot of land, fertilizer, and water to grow, and is treated with harsh chemicals, which all come with a huge ecological footprint,” Boriskina added.

In its usage stage, polyethylene fabric could also reduce environmental impact, as it will consume less energy to wash and dry the material compared with cotton and other textiles.

Boriskina says “It doesn’t get dirty because nothing sticks to it. You could wash polyethylene on the cold cycle for 10 minutes, versus washing cotton on the hot cycle for an hour.”

The MIT team is looking for ways to include polyethylene fabrics into lightweight, passively cooling athletic apparel, military attire, and even next-generation spacesuits, as polyethylene shields against the harmful X-ray radiation of space.

The researchers are optimistic that fabrics made from polyethylene could offer an incentive to recycle plastic bags and other polyethylene products into wearable textiles, adding to the material’s sustainability.

Boriskina concludes, “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.”

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