Sunday, May 8, 2011

From Fabrics to Bottles and Back to Fabrics

On May 8, 1951, the first Dacron® men’s suits were introduced by the Hart, Schaffner & Marx Co. in New York City. The fabric was actually 55% Dacron® and 45% worsted wool, made by Deering, Milliken & Co. This was the first time polyester was used as used in clothing. It is durable, washes well, resists soaps detergents and dry cleaning solvents and resists mechanical abrasion. 

Dacron® was, at the time, a registered trademark of DuPont and is based on a polymer called polyethylene terephthalate (PET). This polymer is used in fibers for textiles, films, those familiar soda bottles and as engineering plastics. The water and soda bottles made of PET comprise a huge fraction of the floating garbage fields in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. While these bottles eventually break up mechanically into a kind of “sand,” the polymer itself is not biodegradable. This PET “sand” is now washing up on beaches around the world.

But creative people are at work. At present, there are 2,721 issued U.S. patents that describe how PET bottles can be recycled and turned into fabric. Some of these patents were issued very recently. And the work has not stopped. There are now more than 2,000 pending patent applications that also cover how PET can be recycled into fabrics. While some of these technologies recycle the bottles directly, producing a stiff fabric useful in blue jeans, for example, others describe how the polymers can be broken down to lower molecular weight materials for softer, more supple fabrics. Still other patents describe breaking down the polyester all the way to its component monomers.

It is interesting how things can come full circle.