Today’s plastic grocery bag could be tomorrow’s high-tech track suit, thanks to fabric made from polyethylene—the same polymer that is used to make plastic wrap. Analyses suggest that the fabric could be more sustainable than conventional fabrics, including cotton and polyester. Compared to these common fibers, polyethylene fibers take less energy to make, and their chemistry makes them stain-resistant and quick to dry. Plus, polyethylene fabrics can be recycled.
Svetlana V. Boriskina, a scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, led the group that developed the polyethylene textiles. She says she was originally attracted to the polymer because it allows infrared radiation, or heat, to escape from the body, cooling the wearer. But textile experts were skeptical that polyethylene—a material known for blocking moisture—would make for a comfortable fabric.
Boriskina’s team found that they could use standard textile industry equipment to make polyethylene fibers and yarns and then knit or weave them into textiles (Nat. Sustain. 2021, DOI: 10.1038/s41893-021-00688-5). The extrusion process to make the fibers oxidizes the polyethylene on the surface of the fibers, which gives them moisture-wicking properties. Because the inside of the fibers is hydrophobic, the moisture doesn’t seep in, but rather evaporates very quickly. “This is what sets it apart from other wicking materials like cotton,” Boriskina says.
YuHuang Wang, an expert in synthetic materials at the University of Maryland who was not involved in the work, says it’s surprising that polyethylene can be water-wicking and the work is an important step toward using polyethylene as a recyclable textile.
The extruded polyethylene fibers feel soft, silky, and cool to touch, Boriskina says. But they can be engineered to feel like cotton or fleece. The white fibers can be dyed using an environmentally-friendly process where a coloring agent is added during extrusion. While the recyclable material won’t be in any ready-to-wear collections next season, Boriskina says MIT will be spinning out a start-up company to create the fabric, and she’s working with the US Army, NASA, and athletic clothing maker New Balance on applications of the material.