She calls it the New Norm.
She is Lauren Choi, and the New Norm is her project to turn recyclable plastic material into environmentally-friendly textiles, according to Gaston College spokeswoman Stephanie Michael Pickett. As Pickett explained, the Gaston College Technology Center in Belmont is also playing an important role in helping develop plastic into fiber for recycled fabric.
Just two years ago, Choi was an innovative senior majoring in material science and engineering at Johns Hopkins University. Her mother sent her a Los Angeles Times article about China banning imported American recyclables. The article described how plastics shipped abroad could not be recycled, because they are dyed, contaminated or mixed with other non-recyclable waste. This article had a big impact on Choi, who was disappointed to see there were no Sino-American agreements in place re such materials. Thus she started the New Norm to find a way to use plastic waste to produce more environmentally-friendly textiles.
“At an early age,” Choi said, “I had a strong interest and desire to work with sustainable products that would not damage but protect our planet. While in college my interest focused on creating sustainable textiles for the fashion industry. After reading this article, I saw it as an opportunity to step up and do something.”
She began looking for a plastic product that was easily accessible and inexpensive. She selected red Solo cups, a popular brand used at parties, picnics and social gatherings. The cups are made of polystyrene. An estimated 7.4 billion Solo cups, lids and containers annually end up in landfills or oceans.
“Over time,” said Choi, “I received grants and other funding to build a small extruder in my garage that enabled me to test the concept. The long-term goal is to operate as a business-to-business wholesale fabric company, targeting higher-end women’s wear brands. But I needed to first produce fiber and clothing on a larger scale.”
To inquire about blending the Solo cups into a suitable fiber-grade polymer, Choi contacted the Gaston College Textile Technology Center (or TTC) and the Catawba Valley Community College Manufacturing Solutions Center (or MSC). Together, they worked with the Charlotte-based polymer laboratory, the Polymer Center of Excellence, to conduct testing and determine the polymer-blending and pellet extrusion process. Through this network of polymer engineers and textile specialists, Choi got in contact with Dart Container, the makers of Solo cups, and she is now working in collaborative efforts with its recycling initiative, according to TTC Process Co-ordinator Jasmine Cox.
“When Lauren initially reached out to the Textile Technology Center for assistance with her research, I was extremely excited to help,” said Cox. “Sustainability is such an important concept that directly affects the textile and apparel industry. Being able to transform a common household item, such as a Solo cup, into a garment is amazing. I knew that the TTC and partner organizations would be able to help the New Norm produce a great product.”
The process included grinding recycled Solo cups into a pellet size suitable for the melt extrusion. Then the polymer pellets were melted through a combination of applied heat and friction, after which the molten polymer was forced under pressure through a small showerhead opening, called a spinneret, on the TTC One-Shot Extruder. This produced a prototype filament. The TTC Physical Testing laboratory then ran initial tensile, or tension, tests to determine ultimate strength and durability of a product.
Watching every stage of the testing process, Choi learned it was necessary to start small and work her way up to achieve successful fiber blends that could be turned into yarn and then a knit and woven fabric samples.
“Both the TTC and MSC have introduced me to experts in the industry,” said Choi. “I’m very grateful for this pool of advisers that helped me while working on this project. You need to seek advice and listen so that you can make the proper decisions. Stay on your feet but be flexible to change. Don’t give up and keep going.”