Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) engineer, Svetlana Boriskina, who worked on the project, said in an MIT news release that plastic bags that nobody wants can be repurposed into high-performance fabrics with a low environmental footprint. The researchers say that textiles made from these fabrics can be used across the fashion industry, from high-end fashion to sportswear and utility clothing.

Reusing plastic fibers in textiles is more environmentally friendly than using natural fibers like cotton, according to the team behind the research published in Nature Sustainability. Not only this but it can also be effectively recycled again at the end of its life. The researchers found that powdering and extruding polyethylene fibers slightly oxidized the material. This changed its surface energy, making the material weakly hydrophilic. In this way, plastic could be made to attract water molecules to its surface.

In a second extrusion step, the team bunched multiple polyethylene fibers together into a weavable yarn. This changed the material’s hydrophilic properties again. Spaces between fibers in a strand of yarn created capillaries that water molecules could be passively absorbed through. After discovering this wicking ability, the researchers modeled the fibers’ properties in a computer. They found that the material’s wicking ability was affected by the diameter and alignment of fibers throughout the yarn. The modeling helped the team to create polyethylene yarn that was optimized for wicking properties and placed it on an industrial loom. They then used the loom to weave the plastic yarn into fabrics.

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Author: Ben Pilkington, AZO Materials
Image: K.Yas,, AZO Materials