The chemistry behind this high performance fabric made from recycled waste

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A starter slide to give 14–16-year-old students a new context for their study of the uses and properties of polymers.

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Man and woman fashionistas dressed a=in bright plastic waste and wearing sunglasses

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A new take on recyclable fashion: high performance plastic fabric that doesn’t make you sweat

A new textile produced from poly(ethylene) – the simplest and cheapest of all polymers – shows superior cooling properties to cotton or linen, is more stain resistant than polyester, is easily recyclable and can potentially be made from recycled materials. The researchers believe it could contribute significantly both to cut the ecological footprint of the fashion industry and reduce the world’s plastic waste mountain.

Poly(ethylene) has been largely overlooked as a fabric material. Mainly because of its hydrophobic nature – it can be used as protection against rain to stop moisture from coming through, but it’s hugely uncomfortable if sweat gets trapped under clothes.

In the new research, the hydrophobicity was mitigated by melt-spinning the polymer into micrometre-diameter fibres. This partially oxidises the surface, making it barely hydrophilic. This makes the fibre wick water by capillary force, but the interior of the fibre is still deeply hydrophobic. Water cannot go in, so it has nowhere to go but to evaporate. Textiles woven from the fibres can therefore behave like advanced, multi-layer sports synthetic fabrics.

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It is impossible to dye poly(ethylene) using traditional techniques. Instead, colourants are incorporated into molten materials before they are spun into fibres. The dye-resistance of the fibres even had the advantage of making their textile more stain-resistant than cotton, linen or polyester – allowing it to be washed more economically at lower temperatures.

Read the full story in Chemistry World.