As we are forced to find more suitable and sustainable alternatives to popular synthetic fabrics, Italian textile company Aquafil may just have the answer with their recycled and regenerated nylon product “Econyl”. It has been used by Adidas for swimwear and Stella McCartney for outerwear, but what actually is it? How is it made? And, most importantly, how sustainable is it?
Econyl, also referred to as recycled or waste nylon, is made from plastic pollutants like abandoned fishing nets and scraps of carpets or garments recovered from the ocean and waterways. The durability of nylon means it is suitable for purposes like fishing nets, but these often are improperly discarded and float indefinitely in the ocean, harming aquatic life.
The rescued waste materials are broken down from polymers into monomers and then “re-polymerised” just like nylon. As the breakdown process only requires high temperatures and steam (no chemicals!), it is already much more sustainable. The fibres are stretched to match nylon’s elasticity, then they are spun and ready to be manufactured into consumer products. Since Econyl once started out as nylon, it shares a few similar attributes, bar moisture deflection and long-term durability.
So, everything looks great right? One of the problems with nylon is that it isn’t biodegradable, but if we can repurpose it at the end of its life cycle, we may be heading to a more sustainable future. However, Econyl doesn’t decrease the amount of nylon produced each year, it only provides a solution to its unfriendly disposal. It prevents further pollution and the risk of microplastic contaminating our waterways. It must be noted too that Econyl itself also isn’t biodegradable. It could take as long as 1000 years or more for synthetic fabrics to break down. Their website claims Econyl provides a waste solution, but this is only short-term, ignoring the inevitable.
It is claimed that for every 10,000 tonnes of Econyl produces, 70,000 barrels of crude oil are saved and overall, the impact of global warming is reduced by up to 90% compared with production of materials from oil. The stats are impressive.
At present, the cost of the process – recovering the plastic, the scientific manufacture and production – is relatively high but hopefully will converge with more popular fabrics as sustainability is normalised in the near future.
So, it can safely be said that Econyl is sustainable for now. It doesn’t deplete fossil fuels, pollute the air or introduce any new material into circulation. It gives a new life to garments that would otherwise be left to clog up the planet, however it doesn’t solve the fundamental plastic problem and Econyl items risk having a similar fate to its synthetic relatives.