Engineering Professor Working to Turn Trash to Textiles

What if we could take garbage and use it to replace textile materials such as wood pulp, cotton and polyester?
Brian George
Jefferson textile engineer Brian George

On the one hand, there is garbage—all the things we throw away that take up space in landfills.

Now, what if we could take some of that garbage—say, poultry feathers, peanut shells and hemp—and use it to replace textile materials such as wood pulp, cotton and polyester in a variety of applications?

That’s the question being addressed by Jefferson textile engineer Brian George, PhD, whose research has focused on putting such low-cost and abundant trash to better use in the textile industry.

For instance, poultry production creates up to 4 billion pounds of feather waste annually in the U.S., most of which ends up in landfills, says George, speaking at a lecture sponsored by the Arlen Specter Center for Public Service. In his research, George has used the feathers to create an environmental ground cover that can reduce the rate of invasive plant species entering the ecosystem while controlling soil erosion.

Waste from hemp and flax could be use to make erosion-control fabrics and the absorbent material in diapers.
— Brian George

Or consider that billions of pounds of peanuts are processed each year, and the majority of shells go into the trash. These peanut fibers, however, have potential use as an erosion control fabric if they can be made more flexible and stronger.

In addition, waste from hemp and flax are possible sources of fibers for use in wipes and erosion control fabrics and as the absorbent material in diapers, George says. His research has found that adding even small amounts of hemp boosted wipe strength and, with some tinkering, might also improve absorbency.

While the trash that George works with is a low- or no-cost alternative to conventional materials, some recycled materials—such as soda bottles, which require more processing and cleaning—may end up costing more. But if we want to reduce waste and positively impact the environment, George says, “consumers have to drive this change or someone has to come in and disrupt the industry.”

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