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Spinning spoiled milk into an environmental revolution

The fashion industry is considered one of the worst polluters in the world, and experts say there’s an urgent need to develop eco-friendly alternatives.
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PRATO, Italy — An Italian fashion designer is spinning the country’s spoiled milk into clothing.

Antonella Bellina, 39, has developed a method of converting milk protein into a silky fiber.

She was inspired five years ago while making her morning coffee.

“I opened the fridge and found that the milk had expired," Bellina recalled. "I thought, 'why do I have to throw this in the trash? I can use this.'”

According to the Italian agricultural association Coldiretti, the country wastes an estimated 30 million tons of dairy each year.

Image: Clothing made from milk protein by Tuscany-based company, Duedillatte
Clothing made from milk protein by Tuscany-based company, Duedillatte.Catie Monteiro / NBC News

Bellina's Tuscany-based company Duedilatte collects the expired product from local farms.

One T-shirt takes less than half a gallon of milk to make. The final product is enticingly soft, and crucially, doesn’t smell like sour milk.

The transformation begins with the milk heated to exactly 122 degrees Fahrenheit. Next, citric acid is added to separate the whey from the protein. At this stage, it looks and smells just like old, lumpy milk you might find at the back of the fridge.

The casein protein is then strained, dried and ground into powder. The next step is a trade secret, but Bellina could reveal that a machine described as “a giant cotton candy spinner” whips the powder into a fiber. Finally, it’s twisted into thread and woven into fabric.

“The first thing people do is smell it,” Bellina said, laughing.

Milk fiber isn’t new. It was invented in the 1930s as a replacement for wool in fascist Benito Mussolini's resource-starved Italy. But early prototypes were chemical-heavy, with factories using substances like formaldehyde to strengthen the fabric. Bellina said technological advancements have allowed her to revolutionize this process.

“Our fabric is now 100 percent chemical-free," she added. "Even our dyes are from natural sources like blueberries and red onion.”

According to the United Nations, the fashion industry is responsible for producing 20 percent of global waste-water and 10 percent of global carbon emissions — more than that of international flights and maritime shipping combined. The industry is now considered one of the worst polluters in the world and experts say there’s an urgent need to develop eco-friendly alternatives.

Duedilatte produces fabric as well as T-shirts and baby outfits, which cost around $50 and $30 respectively.

While the young company has seen steady growth, Bellina says it has yet to make a profit. However, she plans to expand into bedding and even medical products like bandages.

At the moment, Duedilatte’s range is only available in Italy but the company hopes to enter the global market later this year.

Prof. Kate Fletcher, who specializes in sustainability at the London College of Fashion, described casein fiber as a "really interesting step in a transition period while we figure out how to handle fashion provision with less.”