an international team of researchers has turned polyethylene into lightweight fabrics with a smaller environmental impact than natural fibers such as cotton. polyethylene, also called polythene, is a material commonly found in single-use plastic bags and food packaging. the scientists hope that this breakthrough could provide an incentive to recycle plastic products.



‘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 svetlana boriskina, a research scientist from MIT‘s department of mechanical engineering, who was involved in the project alongside scientists from italy, south korea, and mexico.

plastic bags could be recycled into wearable fabrics, says new research designboom

image by felice frankel, christine daniloff, MIT (main image by brian yurasits)



polyethylene is a nonwicking material, which means it absorbs water and sweat rather than drawing it away. the main breakthrough of this research was turning the polyethylene into a yarn that can wick away moisture, making it more functional as clothing. furthermore, the researchers say that the new polyethylene fabrics wicked away and evaporated moisture faster than nylon or polyester. 



‘you can refresh the material by rubbing it against itself, and that way it maintains its wicking ability,’  boriskina says. ‘it can continuously and passively pump away moisture.’



in addition to its wicking properties, the polyethylene textiles can be cleaned at a lower temperature and dyed using colored particles, both of which would reduce the material’s ecological footprint.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.’  boriskina continues, ‘you could wash polyethyelene on the cold cycle for 10 minutes, versus washing cotton on the hot cycle for an hour.’



the study was first published in nature sustainability.