Conventional nylon production is terrible for the environment, but what about recycled nylon? Can recycling nylon really minimize nylon waste enough to make a difference?
The research is already in, so let’s look at whether recycled nylon is environmentally friendly or if it’s solely a way to reduce nylon’s damaging impact on the environment.
What Is Nylon?
Nylon refers to a family of synthetic polymers used to create cloths and similar products. Unlike natural fibers, such as cotton, nylon is made from petroleum and entirely synthetic, so it isn’t biodegradable, which fuels environmental concerns among critics. First unveiled at the 1939 World’s Fair, it was originally conceived as a cheap alternative to silk, especially for materials integral to World War II, such as parachutes and uniforms. After the war, nylon’s use expanded to countless products and fabric saw extensive popularity until the 1970s, when ecological concerns, among others, became more visible.
How is Nylon Made?
Nylon production begins with the extraction of crude oil from within the earth. Diamine acid is removed from the crude oil and combined with adipic acid in a process that creates a polymer—or plastic—known as “nylon salt.” This substance is then headed, spun, and stretched until it becomes nylon fibers.
A Closer Look at Nylon’s Environmental Impact
Before moving into what recycled nylon is, it’s worth looking at what nylon is and why it’s bad for the environment. Nylon fabric has been used in clothes and similar nylon products for decades, and during that time has contributed significant pre-consumer waste and post-consumer waste.
Made from fossil fuels, it’s a petrochemical that needs approximately 85MJ of energy to make every kilo of nylon. Nylon requires more energy than cotton, and even polyester, to produce. In fact, nylon requires three times as much energy as cotton.
That energy-intensive process releases nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas, into the environment. Nitrous oxide is 310 times more harmful to the environment than carbon dioxide and helps create acid rain and contributes to climate change.
Nylon accounts for approximately 10% of ocean debris and makes its way into fish and other marine animals, killing them and destroying their environments. A great deal of the nylon waste in oceans comes from fishing gear such as discarded fishing nets. That process takes place over decades, with nylon taking between 30 and 40 years to break down naturally.
The main culprit of nylon’s impact on aquatic ecosystems comes from microplastics, which are plastics less than 5 mm in length. These are not only released during nylon’s production, but also when the fabric is washed, worn, and thrown away. Up to 700,000 of these can be released with every 6kg wash. Known to absorb toxic chemicals, microplastics make their way to aquatic environments and other areas—even the human body —where they prove toxic to fish and other animals.
Lastly are the chemicals used in nylon’s creation, such as dyes and bleaching agents, which are known to leach into the environment. These not only affect wildlife, but have been tied to increased cancer rates among humans.
Furthermore, the monomers used in nylon production, diamine and adipic acid (also known as nylon 6,6) are made from the chemicals called cyclohexane and benzene. Benzene is classified as “a human carcinogen by the US Department of Health and Human Services. It is associated with acute myeloid leukemia (AML), aplastic anemia, myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), and chronic myeloid leukemia.”
Why Is Nylon Used So Much?
Despite causing significant damage to the environment, nylon products are still popular across several industries, including clothes, fishing nets, ropes, cookware, and carpets. That popularity is driven by its wide range of properties, such as its soft feel, durability, and easiness to wash. It can also be mixed with polymers like ethylene and maleic anhydride and modifiers to add to its versatility and durability.
Because of its durability, water resistance, and silk-like characteristics, nylon is a popular fiber used by the fishing industry, one of nylon’s largest consumers. Other notable nylon products you probably encounter daily:
- Dental floss
- Sleeping bags
- Outdoor gear
- Seat belts
- Toothbrush bristles
- Cooking utensils
Just like new nylon, recycled nylon can also be used for these products.
What Is Recycled Nylon?
Recycled nylon, as the name implies, is nylon made from recycled material, such as fishing nets, typically sourced from landfills and oceans. Recycled nylon is a more environmentally friendly alternative to its traditional counterpart. It requires much fewer resources and fossil fuels and uses less energy to create the final product, although it maintains the same quality and standard as regular nylon.
Recycled nylon offers the same benefits as traditional nylon. It’s a durable and long-lasting fabric that can be put to multiple uses, with textile companies finding it easy to implement in various products.
The main advantage of recycled nylon, however, is that it reduces the amount of plastic waste that ends up in oceans and landfills. Its production also doesn’t need the same amounts of energy, water, and fossil fuels, making it more environmentally friendly to develop and turn into nylon yarn.
Despite the benefits of recycled nylon, it also suffers from the same drawbacks as traditional nylon. Because it’s a synthetic material, regenerated nylon still isn’t biodegradable and will impact the environment for years to come. Though this is minimized through repeated recycling, the fabric still ultimately ends up causing environmental harm as waste.
These effects are identical to many of the effects of regular nylon, with microplastics, crude oils, and carbon emissions being as much of an issue with recycled nylon. The recycling process simply maximizes the lifespan of the material as it impacts the environment rather than removing this impact completely.
Recycled nylon also isn’t as affordable as other fabrics, as the recycling process can be more expensive on a per unit basis when compared to plastics and polyesters, which have a relatively cheap manufacturing process.
How Is Recycled Nylon Made?
Recycled nylon is made using plastic bottles and multiple other products. The production process breaks down these products through a process called hydrolysis, during which water and chemicals—typically sulphuric acid and sodium hydroxide—break the materials down on a molecular level.
That separates the nylon molecules from other materials, before being spun back into a nylon yarn and wound to add strength, with the use of a spinneret. After spinning, the nylon is ready to be turned into a new product. Depending on the end use of the recycled nylon, it can be treated with a specific finish to add additional properties.
Properties of recycled nylon
Recycled nylon boasts multiple appealing properties, although almost all of these are the same as nylon:
- Drying quickly and retaining its shape after being washed
- Silk-like in look and feel
- Strong and elastic
- Difficult to tear
- Long lasting and durable
- A decent heat-, stain-, and chemical-resistance
Despite these positive attributes, recycled nylon also has some negative characteristics:
- Not flame-retardant
- A lot of energy to produce
- Terrible moisture-wicking capabilities, a poor choice for activewear
What Recycled Nylon Is Used For?
As it boasts the same properties of standard nylon, regenerated nylon is used in all the same areas, including clothing, umbrellas, and sleeping bags. Because it boasts being more environmentally friendly than standard nylon, it’s become more popular with the following sustainability-focused brands:
- Elle Evans
- The Girlfriend Collective
- Mara Hoffman
- BEEN London
- The Common Good Company
Is Recycled Nylon Sustainable?
And now for the big question: Is recycled nylon actually sustainable? Compared to new nylon, regenerated nylon is definitely the more sustainable product, as standard nylon is made from fossil fuels in a process that actively harms the environment. Instead, it takes waste from landfills and aquatic environments and creates new products with them, extending their lifespans. It also emits up to 90% fewer emissions than virgin nylon when produced, clearly making it the more sustainable option.
That doesn’t mean that recycled nylon doesn’t have its drawbacks, however. The production process includes sulphuric acid and sodium hydroxide, both of which are harmful to the environment. Sulphuric acid, for instance, is toxic to fish and causes burns to any animals or wildlife exposed to it. Recycled nylon also isn’t biodegradable. At some point, it’ll end up affecting the environment in the same way that its source materials do. Also, recycled nylon is expensive.
At best, the material can be seen as a way to extend plastic’s lifespan while minimizing its environmental impact per use.
While recycled nylon mightn’t be the most sustainable material, it doesn’t mean that options from all brands are made the same. Some go out of their way to ensure their products are as environmentally friendly as possible. You can identify these sustainable corporations through their certifications—or lack thereof—from various organizations.
Global Recycled Standard
As the name implies, the Global Recycled Standard focuses exclusively on ensuring that products claiming to use recycled materials use them. The certification evaluation looks at the entire manufacturing process to ensure this is the case. A product with this certification is guaranteed to have the amount of recycled materials that it claims.
While it focuses on recycled fabrics and other materials, this certification also determines whether environmental, social, and chemical best practices are used during the manufacturing process. Though voluntary, the Global Recycled Standard can be seen as a mark of environmental friendliness, with recycled products that include this being better than alternatives.
Oeko-Tex’s Standard 100
Speaking of chemicals, Oeko-Tex’s Standard 100 certification process authenticates whether a product uses 100 of the most harmful chemicals in its production process. Products that earn this certification are guaranteed not to use any of these during this process, with Oeko-Tex taking both regulated and unregulated substances into account. Instead, it looks at the harm certain chemicals cause, such as formaldehyde.
Chemicals aren’t the only factor that Oeko-Tex looks for during its certification process. It also makes sure that environmental and socially responsible best practices are followed throughout the production process. While the Standard 100 is still voluntary, companies in 60 countries have qualified for it, with the certification being increasingly recognized as a mark of sustainability.
How Does Recycled Nylon Compare to Other Recycled Fabrics?
With recycled fabrics increasing in popularity, products using other recycled materials are also becoming more accessible, most notably recycled cotton and polyester. As far as nylon and regenerated nylon are concerned, multiple alternatives to nylon fabric are available. It’s worth looking at how these materials compare.
Recycled polyester, also known as rPET, is quite similar to recycled nylon. They’re both made from the same base material—plastic—making them both synthetic materials. As a result, neither is biodegradable and both can claim the same small increase in sustainability when compared to their traditional counterparts. While both offer the environmental benefits associated with removing plastic waste from oceans and landfills, they suffer the same drawbacks in that they’ll both end up back in the same places once they’re no longer recyclable.
They extend a plastic product’s lifespan and decrease its environmental cost per use, but they don’t remove the harm that they’re original production fuels. Both recycled polyester and nylon also offer a similar feel, durability, and longevity, among other properties, making them ideal for much the same uses, such as clothing and rope.
Products made using natural materials are typically more environmentally friendly because they’re biodegradable and don’t have as much of an impact as their synthetic counterparts. With various certifications, such as the ones I listed above, and organic and sustainable forest management practices, certified organic cotton is one of the most sustainable materials around. Recycling it is even better.
Organic cotton is a much more environmentally friendly fabric than synthetic materials like nylon and polyester, so it’s natural to assume that recycled cotton would be more sustainable than recycled nylon. That appears to be the case, although that sustainability wanes significantly if the cotton is not produced organically. Non-organic cotton is not an eco-friendly material.
How to Sustainably Wash Recycled Nylon
Recycled nylon releases microfibers at much the same rate as its virgin counterpart. While microplastics are impossible to avoid, there are ways to minimize them. Taking care when washing recycled nylon is the easiest way of doing so.
Though brands have specific directions that you should follow, popular advice claims that regenerated nylon should be washed at lower temperatures, and you should avoid putting it in the dryer. It would also help to reduce the number of washes done per week, to cut down on the overall impact that doing the laundry has on the environment.
Recycled nylon boasts multiple environmental benefits compared to its virgin counterpart, especially when certified as sustainable by various organizations. Despite this, it’s not the most environmentally friendly product, with the likes of organic cotton being more sustainable alternatives.
While it does offer some benefits compared with its more harmful unrecycled counterpart, recycled nylon isn’t as much of a savior as its proponents suggest. At some point, it’ll wind up back in the oceans and landfills where its base materials were sourced from, causing precisely the same issues.