A University of Cincinnati student has created a plastisol-based ink made with thermochromic pigment that can be erased with heat for the reuse and reprinting of T-shirts.

The product, Cycle, was designed by Ellen Posch, a senior industrial design student working in product design consulting at the US university’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning, to “combat the unsustainable amount of textile waste sent to landfills with a brand centered around circular fashion design”.

Customers can subscribe to Cycle online to receive a new design on their T-shirt every month, which is reprinted with the colourless, thermochromic ink again and again until the garment wears out. “Cycle ink is currently a preliminary prototype, comprised of a plastisol-based substrate mixed with thermochromic pigment. When the T-shirt is heated above normal temperatures, the pigment in the ink disappears, leaving only the screen printing substrate,” explained Ellen.

The T-shirts are delivered in reusable metal canisters with a sticker displaying the monthly design, and subscribers send their T-shirts back to Cycle in the same canister each month to be reprinted.

Ellen said that although Cycle is not as eco-friendly as water-based ink, there is an opportunity for a water-based version of the product to be developed. She said: “Only a small amount of ink is used per T-shirt in screen printing, so I focused my energy on conserving textiles that often end up in landfills and have high manufacturing costs in terms of human labour and environmental impacts.

The colourless, thermochromic ink can be erased by heat

“The main benefits of thermochromic screen printing are its potential to divert textile waste from landfills, and [the ability to] offer customisation to consumers in a subscription-based model. The only challenge with the ink is developing a variety that’s more durable for everyday wear, and more sustainable than the original prototype.

“Cycle is a viable brand to reproduce on an industrial scale – the T-shirts would likely be heated in industrial dryers to remove the thermochromic ink, and an online platform would be developed to simplify the subscription model. I believe the value of Cycle is in the system, and not necessarily in the ink.”

Ellen added that while she would potentially bring Cycle to market, she has not made any decisions about this yet.