Plastic grocery bags are one of the most pernicious types of plastic waste. Now, scientists say they have developed a technique that could recycle plastic bags into the fabrics of the future. MIT researchers have come up with a method that can transform polyethylene into lightweight fabrics that are more environmentally friendly than natural fibers like cotton.
Polyethylene is the material most commonly used to make single-use plastic bags and food packaging. It is a non-wicking material, meaning that it absorbs water and sweat rather than drawing it away. The new breakthrough of the MIT study involved turning the polyethylene into a yarn that can wick away moisture, thus making it more functional as clothing.
“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,” says MIT mechanical engineer Svetlana Boriskina, who was involved in the study.
Alongside its wicking properties, the new polyethylene fabric has a minimal environmental footprint since it can be cleaned at a lower temperature and dyed using colored particles. “We don’t need to go through the traditional process of dyeing textiles by dunking them in solutions of harsh chemicals. We can color polyethylene fibers in a completely dry fashion, and at the end of their life cycle, we could melt down, centrifuge, and recover the particles to use again,” says Boriskina.
Image source: MIT