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How fibers spun from gelatin could help reduce textile waste


Are you someone who just can't resist a $4 shirt, even though you know you might only wear it once or twice? In recent years, the fast fashion industry has come under a lot of criticism as landfills pile up with cheap discarded clothing.

MICHAEL RIVERA: About 8% of the waste that we put into landfills right now is from textile waste. And so there's a significant amount of waste that we're generating from textiles, and we don't have a very good way to recycle it.

RIVERA: That's Michael Rivera, an assistant professor with the ATLAS Institute at the University of Colorado Boulder. The group aims to use creativity and invention to promote a more sustainable world. For Rivera, that means...

RIVERA: I try to look at ways we can sort of take waste and reuse it.

FLORIDO: He and a group of researchers set out to tackle textile waste. Because many of the fibers used to make cheap clothes are hard to recycle, his team came up with an interesting solution.

RIVERA: In this work, we look at creating fibers from these biomaterials and then using them to create textiles that we could potentially wear. But then they have the benefit of actually being dissolvable.

FLORIDO: These fibers are made from natural materials, and they break down when exposed to heat. He's been working with gelatin.

RIVERA: Which is a common food material. And it's also a waste product that typically ends up in landfills. And so we try to recover that gelatin and then use that material to make these fibers.

FLORIDO: The researchers created a machine that could spin fibers made from gelatin.

RIVERA: The fibers themselves sort of feel a bit like flax fibers or yarns, if you could imagine that. They feel fairly soft.

FLORIDO: The idea here isn't to make clothes out of JELL-O jigglers. It's to combine the dissolvable fibers with more common textile materials.

RIVERA: You know, if you use these fibers and you weave them into, like, a traditional garment, like a T-shirt, and you had different types of fibers in there, like cotton yarns, for example - if you use the gelatin almost as like a scaffold and structuring, you can dissolve that and then easily pull out the cotton yarns.

FLORIDO: Rivera hopes other researchers and designers will use the open-source machine to develop other sustainable fibers.

RIVERA: You could now go onto our website, download the files and actually build the machine yourself for about $560.

FLORIDO: Don't expect to see a gelatin-based collection at Paris Fashion Week anytime soon. Rivera says this project is just starting, but it has a lot of potential.

RIVERA: The ideal outcome, you know, in the long run would be that we have all sustainable fibers, yarns and textiles that have every quality that we need. But we're not there yet, and we got a long way to go. So this machine is sort of the first step.

FLORIDO: That was Professor Michael Rivera of the University of Colorado Boulder.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.