Into The Fiber: How Sustainable Is Recycled Nylon?

Into The Fiber: How Sustainable Is Recycled Nylon?

Conventional nylon is an actual killer. Over 600,000 tons of nylon fishing nets are dumped in the ocean every year, responsible for killing millions of marine animals. Unlike the plastic used to make polyester, nylon cannot be recycled with your local sanitation department. Making up just 10% of synthetic fiber production, the demand for recycled nylon is low, but the negatives effects on our environment are high. For decades, the cost associated with recycling nylon did not work for most yarn producers or brands. However, consumer demand for all recycled products has lead to a surge in recycled nylon production and innovation.

Source: worldwildlife.org. Seal caught in nylon fishing net.

Why Nylon Is Difficult To Recycle

As a for-profit business, the economics of recycling nylon is not very appealing to most companies. It’s neither easy nor inexpensive to recycle. Unlike metals and glass, nylon’s melting point is very low. The process does not kill most bacteria or remove contaminants.  As a result, all nylon has to be before the recycling process can begin. Similar to recycled polyester, the recycling process is complicated, expensive, and most companies cannot afford the premium price.

Unlike polyester, there is a minimal supply of nylon waste for sale. Recycled polyester is made from the abundance of plastic bottles thrown away every day around the world. Meanwhile, recycled nylon can only be made from nylon products, which includes fishing nets, carpets, fabric scraps, and industrial plastics. These waste sources are expensive and not easily procured. For this reason, recycled nylon can be upwards of 75% more costly than virgin nylon. I have witnessed multiple brands develop recycled nylon products only to be scared away due to the price. Unfortunately, it’s going to be very difficult to bring down the cost until the recycling of nylon becomes accessible to all consumers.  

Not All Recycled Polyester Is Created Equal

Source Prada: Recycled Econyl Prada Bags. Prada has committed to shift to 100% Econyl nylon. 

With demand rising for all recycled products, Brands ranging from Prada to Adidas have started to use recycled nylon. However, not all recycled nylon is created with the best intentions. Ideally, recycled nylon should be made from post-consumer nylon waste: fishing nets, old nylon garments, ropes, etc.  The leader in post-consumer nylon recycling is Econyl. Their fibers are 100% obtained through the recycling and purification process of plastic waste collected from oceans, fishing nets, and textile fiber waste. According to Econyl, every 10,000 tons of yarn, saves 70,000 of crude oil, and 57,000 tons of emissions are avoided. They are actively taking pollution out of the world and repurposing it into yarn. Their intentions are in the right place.

In stark contrast, Unifi’s makes their Repreve nylon with “pre-consumer” waste by recycling their fabric scraps leftover from their conventional nylon production. As one of the largest virgin nylon producers in the world, Unifi generates enough fabric scraps to sustain a recycled nylon business unit. To be clear, they do not remove any waste from landfills or the oceans to make the yarn. All nylon used to produce Repreve is from their facilities’ waste.  Although this is better than disposing of their nylon waste in landfills, and it’s not a sustainable option. 

Is Recycled Nylon Sustainable? 

Source: Econyl

Recycled nylon manufactured from “post-consumer” waste is the only sustainable nylon option. Econyl has a great marketing team and encourages their brands to label products with the Econyl branding.  Consumers should be suspicious of non-branded recycled nylon claims as there’s a good chance it comes as a byproduct of the virgin nylon producers. Companies like Unifi and the plethora of Asian suppliers’ intentions are to increase efficiencies and profit. Their core business is to produce virgin nylon and are in fact source of nylon pollution in the world.  Buyer beware. 

 

Jon K.

Jon Kirsner, MBA, MSBA, is a supply chain professional with a decade of experience in sustainable manufacturing. His industry experience has exposed him to the truth of the sustainable fashion and consumer goods industries. He does not write as a journalist but as an industry expert and passionate advocate.

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