Topics: Ecology, Environment, Green Tech, Materials Science
Polyethylene is one of the most common plastics in the world, but it is seldom found in clothing because it cannot absorb or carry away water. (Imagine wearing a plastic bag – you would feel very uncomfortable very quickly.) Now, however, researchers in the US have developed a new material spun from polyethylene that not only “breathes” better than cotton, nylon, or polyester, but also has a smaller ecological footprint due to the ease with which it can be manufactured, dyed, cleaned and used.
The textile industry produces about 62 million tons of fabric each year. In the process, it consumes huge quantities of water, generates millions of tons of waste, and accounts for 5–10% of global greenhouse gas emissions, making it one of the world’s most polluting industries. Later stages of the textile use cycle also contribute to the industry’s environmental impact. Textiles made from natural fibers such as wool, cotton, silk, or linen require considerable amounts of energy and water to recycle, while textiles that are colored or made of composite materials are hard to recycle at all.
Hydrophilic and wicking
Researchers led by Svetlana Boriskina of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) set out to produce an alternative. They began by melting powdered low-density polyethylene and then extruding it into thin fibers roughly 18.5 μm in diameter (as measured using scanning electron microscopy and micro-computed tomography imaging techniques). This process slightly oxidizes the material’s surface so that it becomes hydrophilic – that is, it attracts water molecules – without the need for a separate chemical treatment.
Recycled plastic bags make sustainable fabrics, Isabelle Dumé, Physics World