Is Nylon Eco Friendly? That’ll Be a No-lon From Us
Take a look at the contents of your closet.
Roughly one out of every ten garments will have nylon in it (maybe more!).
Around 12% of the world’s synthetic fibers are made from nylon.
Nylon revolutionized the world of synthetic fibers, and while it has made many types of clothes and modern-day essentials possible—like toothbrushes, ropes, carpet, and car parts—that cheap material has come with a heavy cost.
Which brings us to today’s question: is nylon sustainable?
We’ll cut to the chase and say “no.”
Nylon comes with a slew of social and environmental concerns, making it a pretty toxic way to dress.
We’ll explore all this and more below. So buckle up your nylon seat belt and let’s unravel this so-called ‘miracle fiber.’
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WHAT IS NYLON?
Nylon’s first introduction to the world was met with excitement and celebration.
It was in the early 1930s, that American chemist Wallace H. Carothers successfully produced nylon. It was the world’s first fully synthetic fiber, which paved the way for others.
By 1935, nylon was patented, and by 1939, after making its debut at the World’s Fair in New York, it was a fashion world hit— especially as a replacement for silk in women’s hosiery (hence the synonymous terms of “nylons” and “stockings”). Many vintage clothing tags will attest to this.
And once Nylon became a household name, demand for it skyrocketed.
It was touted as having the “strength of steel and the sheerness of cobwebs.”
In 1942, the world found yet another new use for nylon: parachutes.
Because of World War II, nylon production shifted from women’s stockings into military equipment, like flak jackets, mosquito netting, and even aircraft fuel tanks.
Between hosiery and wartime essentials, nylon revolutionized what could be made in a test tube. For all it brought to the world, however, nylon had a dark side.
WHAT IS NYLON MADE OF?
Nylon is a polymer fabric, and like other synthetic fabrics, it’s made from petroleum.
Nylon begins as diamine acid, which is extracted from crude oil (petroleum). This is transformed in a process called polymerization, which basically means all of the carbon-based molecules (called monomers) are combined in a long chain.
The finished product is a polymer (which is why nylon fabric is sometimes known as polyamide), as it contains a long chain of polyamide monomers.
There are a few different types of nylon, but only one is regularly used in fabrics: nylon 6,6.
Nylon 6,6 gets its name because the ingredients that synthesize it (adipic acid and hexamethylenediamine – try to pronounce that one!) each contain six carbon atoms.
HOW TO MAKE NYLON FABRIC
The process used to make nylon fabric looks like this:
- Extracting diamine acid from crude oil (hexamethylenediamine) and combining it with adipic acid to create the polymer, nylon salt.
- Heating, extruding through a metal spinneret, and loading onto a spool.
- Stretching the fibers to give them enhanced strength and elasticity, before wounding them onto another spool for final spinning into fabric.
Not only is nylon created using monomers derived from unsustainable fossil fuels, but this process by which it’s made poses further sustainability concerns.
IS NYLON SUSTAINABLE?
If you didn’t pick up on this already, nylon isn’t one of our favorite fabrics—and this begins with what goes into the fabric.
While nylon can be created using other resources, it’s commonly produced with raw materials derived from crude oil.
We won’t elaborate on the petroleum harvesting process, but as you know it typically involves drilling, fracking, or other equally destructive methods that wreak havoc on our environment.
Then, like other synthetic fabrics, a lot of energy and water are required to manufacture nylon fabric.
And here’s another significant sustainability concern: pollution.
During the manufacturing process, many of the required chemicals end up in the water— which ultimately escapes into waterways near the manufacturing locations.
But that’s not even the worst of nylon’s impact on the planet.
Diamine acid has to be combined with adipic acid to make nylon. During the production of adipic acid, significant amounts of nitrous oxide are released into the atmosphere.
This greenhouse gas really packs a punch as it’s considered 300 times more harmful for our environment than carbon dioxide.
Where it’s made is also of concern.
Though originally developed in the United States, most nylon manufacturing currently takes place in China and other Asian countries like Pakistan, India, and Indonesia.
That means millions of tons of carbon dioxide are produced simply to export this nylon to various places of manufacturing and sale around the world.
All this before nylon even reaches consumer hands.
And when those nylon stockings start to run faster than Usain Bolt, we have no choice but to dispose of them. Only recently has fabric recyclers become readily available.
Ultimately, we are left with a whole lot of nylon waste.
Unlike natural fibers that biodegrade over years or decades, nylon takes much longer—like, hundreds of years longer.
That’s if it even ends up in a landfill. Often it’s just dumped into the ocean (as discarded fishing nets) or eventually finds its way there.
If you’ve ever seen that viral video of a seal struggling to get out of a net, you’ll know why this is so heartbreaking. Especially so, considering over 650,000 marine animals die or get injured every year by old nylon nets.
While that statistic includes injuries related to active fishing nets, a huge percentage comes from discarded fishing nets, or ghost nets.
WHAT ABOUT RECYCLED NYLON?
Here’s some good news!
There is one type of nylon that is slightly better for our planet.
Otherwise known by its patented name Econyl, this synthetic alternative is making its way into the products of many sustainable fashion brands.
Unlike traditional nylon made from virgin fossil fuels, Econyl is made from nylon that already exists in waste products. This greatly reduces the environmental impact of the fabric (at the material sourcing stage, anyway).
With an aim to correct some of the problems caused by synthetic fibers, Italian plastics company Aquafil developed the nylon-alternative fabric by repurposing textile production scraps and discarded fishing nets (AKA ghost nets).
According to Aquafil, Econyl has a reduced global warming potential of up to 90% less as compared to standard nylon. Noting that figure has not been independently verified.
Regardless, Econyl is a better alternative than virgin nylon, here’s why:
- Discarded fishing nets can harm aquatic life and build up over time—Econyl puts this material to better use.
- Econyl is chemically identical to nylon-6,6, and can be used just like normal nylon fabric that’s still stretchy and tough.
- The cost of Econyl is similar to that of nylon, and will likely decrease as it becomes more popular.
- Econyl has received certification from OEKO-TEX Standard 100 ensuring a certain level of toxicity isn’t present in the final garment.
However, the nylon-alternative still faces a few setbacks:
- Manufacturing Econyl requires a similar chemical process as virgin nylon. While Aquafil has not disclosed the details of this process, we can assume that it involves toxic chemicals. However, the OEKO-TEX certification at least means it’s far less toxic.
- Like nylon, Econyl fabric is commonly dyed in a process that uses materials that may be harmful to workers and the planet.
- Nylon is not biodegradable so neither is Econyl. In fact, discarded fabrics made from the nylon alternative may also end up in our oceans causing the same issues as the raw materials (i.e. fishing nets). It can also shed microplastics upon washing.
Still we like it better than the alternative, and we’ve stumbled upon it when researching for sustainable fashion guides. The regenerated nylon yarn is commonly found in lingerie, hosiery, swimwear, clothes, sportswear, outdoor apparel, and vegan handbags.
Here are a few brands using the nylon alternative:
- Outerknown uses it in a range of sustainable mens clothing products, such as watches, board shorts, and jackets.
- Alice + Whittles makes use of Econyl in their ethical shoes.
- About a decade ago, RubyMoon became the first company to use Econyl in their ethical activewear.
- Various other eco friendly swimwear brands are using the material, too, including Davy J, Woodlike, Reformation, Amara Tulum, and NOW_THEN.
ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES OF NYLON FABRIC
Not only is traditional nylon not a sustainable fabric, but its disadvantages outweigh the advantages.
First and foremost, while it’s commonly found in sportswear, it’s ironically not great for people who like to… well, do sports.
Unlike polyester, its ability to wick moisture is limited.
Which is to say it won’t actually wick sweat from your skin. You’ll be sticky and stinky before you’ve finished your warmup.
Worse than being exposed to your own personal fragrance is your direct exposure to some of the toxic chemicals used to produce those nylon leggings.
Like other synthetic fabrics, sulfuric acid, formaldehyde, and caustic soda are used in nylon manufacturing. Sometimes, nylon is also treated with softening agents like limonene, pentene, terpineol, and chloroform.
All that may still be present by the time you don them for a downward dog, potentially leading to skin conditions, allergies, and more.
What’s the point in upgrading to a eco friendly yoga mat if you’re just going to wear toxins anyway?
Here are a few other disadvantages of nylon:
- It’s prone to pilling and static.
- It’s heat sensitive and doesn’t tolerate direct sunlight well.
- It absorbs dyes and oils when being washed.
All in all, it’s a cheap and nasty fabric.
This brings us to nylon’s biggest advantage: its price.
The cost to manufacture the fabric is relatively low, especially compared with the fabric it was initially designed to replace (like silk). Nylon is good enough and versatile enough that many feel the downsides are worth the low cost.
There are a few other reasons why nylon is still used in clothes:
- It’s lightweight but durable.
- It’s relatively easy to wash.
- It resists wrinkles and shrinkage.
- It’s fast-drying.
- It has some insulating properties.
- It can be dyed easily (almost too easily).
To remedy some of the fabric’s downsides, nylon is commonly mixed with other fabrics like cotton, spandex, cork fabric and polyester. In these situations, the desirable attributes of nylon are sort of maintained and the undesirable aspects are somewhat eliminated.
HOW TO CARE FOR NYLON FABRIC?
Wondering if you have any nylon clothes around the house?
You’ll probably find it in hosiery, waterproof jackets, track pants, leggings and tights, activewear, and swimwear.
While knowing how to read clothing tags will provide the best directions, it’s recommended you wash nylon clothing separately with cold water. Avoid chlorine bleach and fabric softener.
If you have the time and want to avoid pilling, which nylon fabric is notorious for, hand washing is actually best.
It’s also important to be aware that nylon (much like polyester and other synthetics), can produce microplastics upon washing. So if you’re using a machine, toss them in a Guppyfriend (or other microplastic catching wash bag) first.
Regardless of how you wash, hang dry instead of using a dryer. Knit nylon garments may be laid out flat to avoid stretching.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON THE SUSTAINABILITY OF NYLON
So, is nylon sustainable?
We don’t think so, and while recycled nylon is a better alternative, we’d still avoid filling our wardrobes with Econyl based garments.
Until the manufacturers of Econyl are able to recapture a significant proportion of the world’s nylon waste, improve the manufacturing process, and change the material’s biodegradability, nylon (recycled or not) is still pretty bleak.
That said, Econyl is a good option for garments that struggle for sustainable fabric foundations, like swimwear and leggings.
Our advice, exercise your buying power carefully and minimally and avoid virgin nylon garments as much as you can… unless they’re from some of your favorite online thrift stores, that is!