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Frustrated By Plastic Bottles Littered Around? Pittsburgh Company Turns Them Into Fabric

Kathleen J. Davis
90.5 WESA
Thread's Homewood facility where the finished textiles are made into consumer goods, like backpacks. Eventually, the company hopes to move all manufacturing to Pittsburgh.

Every minute, 1 million plastic bottles fly off store shelves and into the hands of consumers. More than 90 percent of these are not recycled, winding up in landfills or waterways. Thread aims to help reduce the amount of cast away plastic bottles by using them to make fabric.

The Homewood-based company spent four years developing the material, said co-founder Ian Rosenberger.

"At its most chemical level, a plastic bottle is polyethaline terathalate, which is another fancy word for polyester," he said.

The bottles are chopped up to look like confetti, then put in a big vat and melted. When the material is stretched, the molecules line up and start to act like thread.

"We can spin it on spinning machines that are the same spinning machines that have been used for hundreds of years," Rosenberger said. "And then we can weave it into finished materials."

Backpacks by Thread.

Rosenberger said the textile can be used in place of cotton, which he said is a crop with a negative impact on the environment.

"It takes immense amounts of water, immense amounts of fertilizer to use," he said. "We figured, why don't we create something that picks stuff up out of landfills and out of the ocean?"  

Thread's fabric can be soft and lightweight, or tough and durable. Marmot made T-shirts from it, and Timberland used it in boots. Thread will soon start making its own product from the material -- a backpack made of about 25 bottles.

The bottles that will eventually become Thread backpacks and other products are collected in Haiti and Honduras. The textiles themselves are manufactured in those two countires as well as Taiwan. Thread's backpacks are currently manufactured in Pittsburgh, and Rosenberger said he hopes to bring more of the company's manufacturing process to Pittsburgh in the future.

He also said there are plans to expand Thread's own product line beyond backpacks, but the company is currently keeping details of those plans under wraps.