A fabric you have likely seen on some of your activewear or swimwear tags in the past and – just like me – not thought about for much more than a split second. But what’s behind the fabric? And even more importantly, does it have a negative impact on the environment?
What is nylon?
To answer the most apparent question, nylon is a man-made polyamide. It is derived from oil – and can be categorized within synthetic fibres. Unlike other organic or semi-synthetic fibres (remember viscose?), nylon is entirely synthetic, which means that it has no basis in any organic material. It serves as a substitute mainly for natural fabrics such as hemp, cotton and silk.
The rise of nylon
First introduced to fashion in the 1930s, nylon was a long lasting high quality alternative to silk stockings. The fabric then went on and replaced silk in military parachutes, tents and robes during the Second World War. Besides, nylon replaced everything that once was made from silk as imports from Asia experienced significant shortages and more importantly heavy price fluctuations. In the past, the commonly used nylon was high quality, which made it hard wearing and long lasting. If the quality stayed the same over the past decades this article might look differently, but unfortunately, poor quality nylon is the norm in fast fashion today. More than 10 years ago nylon accounted for 12 percent of the world’s synthetic fiber production.
How is nylon produced?
While there are quite a few different types of nylon out there most of them are derived from polyamide monomers which are extracted from crude oil – also known as petroleum. Similar to polyester the process is quite chemical. After the monomer is extracted from crude oil, it is forced to enter into a reaction with adipic acid. The resulting crystalized substance is then heated to form a molten substance. While I wish that was it I have to disappoint you. The substance is then extruded through a spinneret. Nylon immediately hardens after the extrusion through the spinneret and is ready to be loaded onto bobbins. In the so called drawing process the fibres are stretched to increase their strength and elasticity. After completing the drawing process nylon is ready to be spun into a fabric. Although, nylon is usually combined with other fabrics such as polyester or cotton before it’s spun into a fabric.
What impact has nylon on the environment?
To continue with the production process, nylon is not suited for natural dyes or low impact chemical dyes meaning that the process of colouring the fibre creates significant water pollution. Note that nylon is mostly produced in countries such as Brazil, India and China. These countries tend to have overall weaker environmental protections in place which makes nylon a significant contributor to water pollution in the developing world. Further, to produce adipic acid – remember the acid added to the production process early on – nitrous oxide is released into the atmosphere which is considered to be 300 times worse for the environment than CO2. Truly, I wish it would stop here but stay with me. As mentioned before nylon isn’t biodegradable and will persist in the environment indefinitely. Nylon fishing nets are one of the two largest sources of microplastic pollution in the ocean, the other are microplastics wearing off from our polyester garments with every wash.
The silver lining on the horizon
As a synthetic fibre nylon can actually be recycled many many times. Recycled nylon has similar benefits to recycled polyester. It diverts waste from landfills and oceans and the production uses much fewer resources such as water, energy and fossil fuel than virgin nylon. A large part of the recycled nylon produced today comes from old fishing nets rescued from the ocean or nylon carpets and post consumer tights. ECONYL® is the shining example of a certified, eco-friendly, recycled nylon textile. So why is it not widely used yet? Well, nylon isn’t easy or cheap to recycle which makes it less attractive to fashion companies. Today, using recycled nylon is much more expensive than simply producing new virgin nylon. Thanks to an increasing demand from consumers globally there is a lot of research being done to reduce the costs of recycling nylon so that it can be used more widely.
Reading about these alternatives and ways of recycling nylon we cannot forget that at the end of the day nylon isn’t biodegradable and will stay in landfills indefinitely. That being said, it’s important to reduce global consumption of virgin nylon to slow down the process. Opt for alternatives such as ECONYL® when purchasing new activewear, swimwear or tights. instead.