Nylon was the world’s first synthetic fiber. It was born from a necessity: to have an alternative to Chinese silk, very expensive and dependent on export. In 1940, nylon stockings made their debut, a strong, elastic, and thin synthetic fiber with a very low production cost that changed the fashion industry.
The problem of synthetic fibers
About 8 billion barrels of oil are used to produce synthetic materials – such as nylon and polyester – every year. These products also take centuries to decompose. For example, to produce a simple cotton T-shirt, up to 2700 liters of water are absorbed. These numbers, applied to the entire fashion industry, resulting in the pollution that is equivalent to almost 10% of global emissions. This puts the fashion industry in second place as the most polluting sector in the world, preceded only by the oil industry. For example, according to the Textile Exchange, 5.4 million meters of polyamide were produced in 2018. Polyamide is a very difficult material to recycle, compared to, for example, polyester. As an Ellen Macarthur Foundation study also points out, if we don’t act quickly to make a change in this area, it will result in 26% of the world’s CO2 emissions between now and 2050.
Aquafil and regenerated nylon
The most logical step, instead of continuing to take raw materials from the planet, is to reuse what is already there, the waste, giving it a second life and thus creating a truly circular and regenerative system.
In the nylon production sector, Aquafil is a world leader. It is an Italian chemical company, based in Arco, Trentino. Since 2007 it has been working to find an alternative to nylon as we know it. Thus, in 2011, Econyl was born, a 100% regenerated and regenerable thread. It is a material that recovers pre and post-consumer textile waste and above all reuses disused fishing nets, found in the oceans and on beaches.
Fishing nets, in fact, are a huge source of nylon, but also of pollution, considering that a Greenpeace report shows that over 640 thousand tons of plastic in the oceans are only fishing material – out of a total of 8 million tons per year. Aquafil has therefore started from these, creating a collection program, which also includes partnerships with various companies, which help to recover, not only fishing nets but also other materials, from which then produce regenerated nylon.
“Econyl is a product that respects the environment, because it takes nothing from the environment.
Through chemical and mechanical processes, we are able to recover and regenerate the nylon present in certain types of waste, such as fishing nets, carpets, and other waste materials, and make it ready for new and almost infinite uses.”
– Giulio Bonazzi, Aquafil CEO
The Regeneration Process
Thanks to the support and collaboration with companies, the first step of the remanufacturing process is to recover and clean the nylon waste, accumulated in landfills and oceans around the world. Then, the recovered material is regenerated through specific chemical and mechanical processes. The result is Econyl yarn for the apparel, carpet, and flooring industries, thus creating completely new products. Thanks to this closed-loop process, the recovered nylon can be recycled indefinitely, without ever losing its qualities. A true example of the circular economy.
The oceans provide 70% of the oxygen we breathe while blocking 30% of the world’s carbon emissions. They are the lungs of the planet and therefore must be protected.
Thanks to Aquafil’s project, for every 10,000 tons of crude Econyl, 70,000 barrels of crude oil can be avoided, preventing 65,100 tons of CO2 emissions. Thus, the impact of nylon on global warming can be reduced by up to 90%.
An important achievement is that Aquafil’s sustainability report was selected as one of the top 40 according to ConsumerLab’s 2019 Future Respect Index. This greatly emphasizes the importance of transparency and respect for the environment.
Many major brands are also rallying to a change. Brands such as Stella Mc Cartney – which from 2021 has announced that it will use only regenerated nylon, relying precisely on Econyl – have decided gradually to abandon the modes of production and therefore of pollution followed until now. The same thing will be done by Prada, which, since the very beginning, has based its historical brand on nylon products and is now implementing a big change in the luxury fashion sector.
As Giulio Bonazzi, CEO of Aquafil, says: “Until we admit our mistakes, we will never change”. In fact, the first step is to be aware that we need to change and improve, to reduce the damage created so far and not create new ones.