Corn Being Used to Produce Clothing and Other Textiles

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To prevent a recurrence of that kind of scenario, Unifi is trying to shift from commodity polyester to higher-end, differentiated products such as Natureworks. Other products Unifi has introduced include yarn made from recycled Coke bottles and polyester that looks and feels like cotton or wool.

Wider Benefits

But the potential benefit of Natureworks goes beyond the bottom line of Unifi and other textile companies. Unlike polyester, Natureworks is biodegradable, which means it will decompose relatively quickly in a landfill.

For oil-based products, that process can take hundreds of years. "Archaeologists might be digging up polyester many years from now," said Gordon.

The process of manufacturing Natureworks is also safer and more environmentally sound than that of some other textiles, O'Brien pointed out. Natureworks production, for example, emits less carbon dioxide than the manufacture of oil products.

Such benefits helped Unifi win a Technology-of-the-Year award from the U.S. Department of Energy earlier this year and an endorsement by the environmental group Greenpeace.

Cargill Dow has built a new plant in Nebraska where the production cycle of Natureworks will begin. The company will first extract the corn plant's natural sugar, then ferment it to make lactic acid. The lactic acid will be formed into string that can produce fibers.

Finally, pellets of the product will be treated like polyester—melted and extruded to form a raw yarn. That's where Unifi and its Yadkinville plant comes in. There, the raw yarn will be twisted and processed additionally to give it strength and the proper texture.

Once the yarn has been processed at Unifi, it can't be distinguished from polyester by the untrained eye. "There's barely a difference," said Lincoln Miller, a concept development manager for Unifi.

The rest of the process is no different than for polyester. Fabric companies will knit or weave the yarn into material, which will be cut and sewn into clothing.

Some non-textile Natureworks products are already available to consumers. California-based Biocorp is making plastic trash bags, cups, and dinnerware that decompose. Sony has been wrapping its mini-discs in Natureworks packaging, and Dunlop has used it in golfball coverings. The fabric should be available to consumers in clothing and furniture by next year.

Meanwhile, Cargill Dow said it plans to expand the process to other continents, where sugar beets or rice might be used as the raw material.

Copyright 2001 Greensboro News & Record

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