The oldest synthetic fiber and one of the most durable, properly sourced Nylon fiber’s sustainability potential is promising – if recycling becomes widespread.
What exactly is Nylon and where does it come from?
As the very first synthetic fiber ever to be made in a lab, nylon was initially marketed in the 1930s for its “stronger than steel abilities.” Indeed, it maintains its reputation for durability even today in everything from swimwear to technical materials. Nylon is essentially a plastic manufactured from crude oil, which then undergoes a chemical process and spinning that results in a strong and elastic fiber. It is primarily produced in China and currently accounts for roughly 12% of global textile production.
What are nylon’s key environmental and health impacts?
Aside from conventional nylon’s dependence on the fossil fuels industry and contribution to its negative impacts on climate, air, and water pollution and more, Nylon production itself requires large quantities of both energy and water. It also generates nitrous oxide – the third most hazardous greenhouse gas after carbon and methane – as a by-product. Another key impact results from the fact that nylon is not biodegradable, and therefore contributes to marine microfiber pollution.
Are there more sustainable options available on the market?
As with other synthetic fibers, the textiles industry has begun to look towards more sustainable modes of nylon production. One approach, for example, takes aim at nylon’s origins using bio-based sources such as castor oil to bypass the petroleum industry. Nylon is also recyclable, so another approach uses recycled pre- or post-consumer waste materials like fishing nets or plastic bottles to reduce energy use and carbon dioxide emissions by up to 50% when compared to virgin nylon.
However, nylon recycling is relatively difficult and expensive to implement, and collection infrastructure remains limited. If the loop is not closed, the recycled nylon product is very likely to end up in the landfill or incinerated at end-of-life. The aforementioned microfiber pollution also remains an issue for recycled nylon, of course.
Recycled Nylon Standards
The Recycled Claim Standard and The Global Recycled Standard both verify the recycled input material and track it all the way to the final product. The latter also ensures responsible social, environmental practices and chemical use throughout production.
Illustration: Kiki Fjell