Nylon is one of the most popular synthetic fabrics used today, especially when it comes to hosiery, swimwear, and activewear.
Since its invention back in the late 30s, the synthetic fibre has remained the fabric of choice for elastic, lightweight products, thanks to its lustrous feel and exceptional strength.
But is nylon eco-friendly, and what is its environmental impact as a type of plastic product?
Here’s all you need to know about how nylon is made, its impact on our planet, and what sustainable materials might be a better alternative for the same polished and lightweight effect.
A brief history of nylon
The invention of nylon was somewhat revolutionary for the whole textile industry.
First created and popularized by the DuPont company in 1938, nylon was not only the very first commercially available synthetic fibre but also the engineering blueprint for other synthetic polymers.
The creation of nylon inspired the entire chemical industry to delve deeper into the structure of polymers. This made way for the discovery of now-ubiquitous materials like PVC and elastane.
What made nylon so popular?
In the beginning, DuPont’s marketing focused on hosiery products, as nylon was presented as a more durable, cheaper, and convenient alternative to silk stockings.
Later on, nylon fabric became essential in WW2’s war efforts as the go-to replacement for silk parachutes, tents, and ropes.
It’s easy to see how the synthetic fibre became so popular: Nylon is incredibly flexible, strong, and durable as well as a lot cheaper to produce than silk or wool.
What is nylon made from and how?
To assess whether nylon is eco-friendly, we have to take a closer look at the manufacturing process behind it.
As a synthetic fabric, nylon is derived from fossil fuels like all other plastic products.
Petrochemicals like ethylene and propylene are the building blocks for the chemical reaction that creates the nylon, and they have to be extracted from raw materials like coal and crude oil.
After the chemicals are condensed into a hot, stretchy sheet of nylon salt, they are separated into individual filaments and stretched even further to create elastic threads, later woven into fabric.
Nylon is most commonly found in tights, stockings, underwear and swim and sportswear. However thanks to its significant strength and versatility, it is also employed for industrial use (machine parts, guitar strings, seat belts, nets, ropes, and even toothbrush bristles).
The environmental impact of nylon
Unsurprisingly, the industry’s use of fossil fuels is one of the main reasons that nylon can’t be considered a sustainable fabric.
Release of greenhouse gas nitrous oxide
As an ozone-depleting substance, nitrous oxide is one of the most toxic greenhouse gasses for our planet and one of the driving causes of global warming.
But there’s more to the environmental impacts of nylon than just fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions alone.
Intensive water and energy use
Another key problem with nylon fibre is its intensive water and energy use: The most popular type of the fibre, nylon 66, requires a whopping 138.62 MJ and 663kg of water to create just 1 kilo of fabric.
So, is nylon eco-friendly?
Even just looking at how the material is produced, and without accounting for variables like the water use of dyeing nylon garments, the answer is a resounding no.
But what does nylon leave behind after its products reach the end of their life cycle?
Is nylon biodegradable?
Unfortunately, nylon is also not biodegradable.
The material will persist in the environment without degrading for decades, with nylon fabric known to take around 30 to 40 years to decompose.
Polluting landfill with microplastics
In fact, even when nylon starts to decompose, it never quite goes away, leaving behind tiny particles of plastic that persist in the environment indefinitely.
Microplastic pollution is one of the main drivers of marine pollution, impacting the health and behaviour of aquatic life and in turn, the health of our entire ecosystem.
But the polymer doesn’t only release microfibers in the landfill.
Microplastics from washing too
Every time we wash nylon clothes and hosiery, like all other synthetic fabrics, the fibre sheds microplastics that travel through our water pipes and eventually into our water streams.
Is nylon recyclable?
On the plus side, nylon is 100% recyclable just like other plastic products are.
Nylon waste can be infinitely recycled to create new products, making recycled nylon a possible solution to our current pollution problem.
However, the accessibility of nylon recycling schemes is far from optimal.
Since it is not an easy or cheap material to recycle, companies tend to prefer buying new rather than spending more on recycled forms. This drives down demand and adds to the pressure on the few recycling facilities that work with the material.
The reason why recycling nylon can be so challenging comes down to the very nature of the fibre.
Nylon is prone to contamination, as bacteria and other contaminants can persist on the surface. This means that recycling facilities have to spend time and resources cleaning nylon fibres more thoroughly than other plastics.
So, while recycled nylon is eco-friendly, or at the very least a more eco-friendly way of enjoying nylon clothing, it’s not yet a viable solution for long-term carbon offsetting.
Can nylon be made sustainably and what are the best eco alternatives?
Traditional nylon might not be a sustainable material, but that doesn’t mean that the industry is not trying to reinvent itself to reduce its environmental impact.
The material is made from synthetic waste like fishing nets, old carpets, and pre-consumer waste, which are then cleaned, shredded, and broken down into their base chemicals to extract nylon.
The new nylon yarn boasts the exact same features and quality as virgin nylon, but without its heavy carbon footprint.
According to ECONYL, the material’s production process is able to save 70,000 barrels of crude oil and avoid 65,100 tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions for every 10,000 tonnes of raw material produced.
In addition, this alternative to nylon is also infinitely recyclable and uses far less water than its virgin counterpart.
Still, ECONYL is far from perfect: As a synthetic waste-based product and ultimately a form of nylon, the material still releases microplastics with every wash.
So, if you’re looking for a microfiber-free alternative, bio-based nylon might be a better option.
This alternative to nylon is a type of bioplastic, a material that mimics the properties of synthetics and plastics without relying on fossil fuels. It uses plant-based sources as its raw materials.
So far, a few different companies have engineered bio-based nylon yarns. However, only Genomatica has made headlines by being the first firm to produce nylon made from renewable sources like sugar, corn, and cassava.
Unfortunately, plant-based nylon is still largely under development and we’re unlikely to see it featured in our underwear, guitar strings, or hosiery anytime soon.
Current best option: recycled nylon
In the meantime, conscious shoppers can rely on recycled nylon instead: While not a perfect solution, only buying from brands that avoid virgin nylon can help reduce GHG emissions and save plenty of water and energy.
And even though you’ll still be shedding microplastics as you wash your recycled or pre-loved nylon, there are ways to mitigate their impact, such as limiting laundry loads and line-drying your clothes.
Towards a synthetics-free future
True eco-friendly nylon is still some way from being a reality for the fashion industry.
But between bio-based alternatives, ECONYL, and the growing number of brands choosing recycled nylon, it looks like the industry has acknowledged its faults and is promising to do better.
Plant-based nylon is certainly one of the most exciting discoveries in the field, and depending on its final biodegradability, it might just be able to turn the tide and transform this classic material into a sustainable fibre.
Looking to the future, nylon clothes and other nylon-based industrial items might disappear from the market altogether — hopefully giving way to more eco-friendly and natural fabrics!
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