The Lowdown on Nylon: Is it an Eco-Friendly, Sustainable Fabric?
Nylon — one of the most popular fabrics used in the fashion industry. It’s often used nowadays as a lightweight, durable, and relatively cheap material to make activewear, jackets, waterproof bags, tents, car seats... Pretty much anything! I mean, it’s no surprise nylon became the textile industry’s protégé. It was even chosen for the first moonwalk suits, but… What are people truly saying about this sought-after fabric?
The truth is that nylon is what you might call a divisive fabric. Some people love it, while others despise it for what they see as its lack of eco-friendliness or sustainability. Yes, it has many advantages over other fibers. However… What do we really know about it? What exactly is nylon? Can it even be recycled? And more importantly: Is it eco-friendly or not?
In this post, I'll address all these questions and more, so before you start digging through your closet for your favourite bomber jacket to see if it has "nylon" written on its label, keep scrolling and get ready for a new eco-research!
What is nylon?
Nylon is essentially a synthetic fiber, in other words, a man-made fiber. We already know some of its qualities, such as its durability and its seemingly extra-charming low cost, but what else is there to know about the world's most popular synthetic textile? Let's break down exactly what nylon is.
What is nylon made from? Is Nylon a plastic?
Besides being a synthetic, artificial fiber, nylon is specifically a synthetic polymer — but not just any synthetic polymer. Rather one is composed of a long chain of carbon-based molecules called polyamide monomers, linked together by covalent bonds.
Actually, nylon isn't just one polymer. It’s a generic name that encompasses a family of synthetic polymers like nylon 66, nylon 610, and nylon 11. These are all examples of nylon polymers. Different versions have slightly different compositions and properties — for example, one might be better suited to swimwear because it has superior chlorine resistance.
Another may be more popular in rain gear due to its strength. However, all of them are mostly made of one thing: polyamide monomers extracted from, you guessed it, crude oil.
So, if nylon is made out of crude oil... Does that mean it is plastic? Unfortunately, yes, nylon is plastic because — without going too much into chemicals and scientific detail — plastics are what they sound like: synthetic polymers derived from crude oil. Yikes!
Where does Nylon come from?
Nylon comes from a place where many innovative textiles are made, a company that may sound familiar to you —because I talked about them in my article on elastane vs. spandex —: DuPont.
It was Wallace Carothers, an organic chemist at DuPont during the 1930s, who successfully produced nylon in a lab in the early 30s, something never seen before in the textile industry. However, it wasn't until 1939 that his creation was truly announced at the World's Fair in New York as an alternative to silk for women’s hosiery. It was that day that fashion around the world changed forever.
Women’s stockings made from nylon were everywhere, and it seemed that at the time, DuPont didn't intend to use the fiber for scientific nor industrial applications, but for the textile industry only — it was there where they hit the jackpot.
However, with the advent of World War II, nylon went in a new direction, becoming the ideal product for making military equipment such as ropes, parachutes, flak jackets, and more. That's how this popular fabric came into our lives, and as you can see, it hasn't left since.
Fun fact: did you know that nylon was the first synthetic fiber ever made? That’s right! Its invention represents the dawn of the age of synthetics. However, decades later, it would be shown that this fiber has a dark side… One that I will mention later on in this post, so keep scrolling!
How is nylon made?
The chemical process by which nylon is made is a bit complicated. It consists of roughly nine steps, but it basically starts with a polyamide monomer extracted from crude oil called diamine acid, which is forced into a reaction with adipic acid.
Then, the crystallized substance known as "nylon salt" is heated to form a molten substance that is forced into a spinneret (a showerhead-like device featuring dozens of tiny holes), hardening the substance and separating it into thin strands.
Next, the resulting fibers are wound onto bobbins where they are stretched in order to increase their strength and elasticity, one of nylon’s main characteristics. After that step is complete, the fibers are wound onto another, smaller spool in a process called “drawing,” which causes the polymer molecules to align into a parallel structure.
Finally, the strands that result can be spun into garments or mixed with other fibers to create mixed textiles. That’s when it’s ready to be dyed and turned into whatever product the manufacturer wants to create.
What is nylon used for?
Nylon was mainly used in women's stockings and military equipment, but over the years, this fiber has continued to grow in the fashion industry. Nowadays, it's still used for women's stockings, but also for gloves, shorts, jackets, shirts, and more.
While this popular fiber has grown in the fashion industry over the years, it also continues to be one of the most popular fabrics for manufacturing outdoor gear such as tents, hiking boots, and backpacks. The nylon used for this purpose is very special nylon known as ripstop nylon, which has been designed to be strong and airtight so that it can prevent the penetration of water or wind into its fabric.
Nylon also continues to play an essential role in many other industries such as the fishing one, where it's used to form fishing lines and nets for those who love the open sea. It’s used in the industrial sector as a basic element to make gears and bearings work in automobiles and even in the artistic field to make crafts, jewelry-related projects, and guitar strings. Yup, it's a pretty versatile fiber that has been very useful to us humans for decades, but... At what cost?
Is nylon eco-friendly?
We've already seen the history of nylon, how it is made, and even mentioned some of its advantages, but it's time to answer the million-dollar question, the one that concerns us most — Is nylon eco-friendly?
Well, right off the bat, if you’re looking for an eco-friendly fabric, nylon might not be the best option. I mean, nylon is a petroleum-based product, so that's already a bad, bad sign. But let's not jump to conclusions just yet, I'm here to do an in-depth eco-research so let's have a closer look at the dark side of nylon, starting with how does this fiber affect the environment:
How does Nylon affect the environment?
The negative impact of nylon on the environment is divided into two distinct stages, the pre-consumer impact and the post-consumer impact.
As for the pre-consumer impact of nylon, its production process is inevitably tied to the petrochemical industry, and we all know how the petrochemical industry harms the environment. Drilling, fracking, and other methods of petroleum harvesting are a nightmare to ecosystems around the world, and as nylon is a synthetic polymer that requires those methods to even exist, it is clearly part of the issue. But this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Although nylon isn’t as thirsty as other fabrics, the water that it uses during its manufacturing process often carries pollutants into waterways surrounding communities near manufacturing locations. This is really concerning because it’s mostly happening in countries with weaker environmental protections in place, such as China, India, Pakistan, and Indonesia, where nylon is mostly manufactured, thus making it a significant cause of water insecurity in those areas (and in the rest of the world!). And don’t get me started on toxic dyes, that’s been proven to be a major contributor to water pollution too, and guess what? Nylon LOVES toxic dyes.
Also, remember when I mentioned above that in order to make nylon, there needs to be a chemical reaction between diamine acid and adipic acid? Well, during the production of adipic acid, significant amounts of nitrous oxide are released into the atmosphere. “But what’s nitrous oxide?” You may ask. Well, it’s a greenhouse gas 300 times more harmful to our environment than carbon dioxide. Let that sink in.
As if the pre-consumer impacts of nylon on the environment weren't enough, I haven't mentioned the post-consumer impacts yet. These are mainly caused by the improper disposal of products containing nylon, remaining in the environment for hundreds of years, and by the microplastics, they release when washed. Those microscopic pieces of fiber that pollute bodies of water and are ingested by us and millions of fish all over the world... Ugh!
Last but not least, going back to the improper disposal of products containing nylon, the fact that nylon remains in the environment for hundreds of years not only negatively affects the place where it remains but also the species that inhabit it. If you haven't seen images of fish entangled in nylon fishing nets, I would advise you not to watch them (they're truly heartbreaking), but we can't deny that this is a reality that, if it continues, could wipe out part of marine life. Long story short, no, nylon isn't eco-friendly. Period!
Is nylon harmful to humans?
It's clear that nylon is harmful to the environment and wildlife, but... Is it harmful to humans? Kind of. Although the consequences of microplastics entering the human body are still largely unknown, it's hard to believe that ingesting microplastics through food and water is something we shouldn't worry about.
Now, is nylon harmful to humans directly? Like, if you put a nylon garment on? Well, it's important to keep in mind that when synthetic fabrics are manufactured into apparel and sold to customers, they may still contain traces of toxic chemicals like bleaching agents and artificial dyes; however, this depends on where the fabric was produced. If you're someone that has very sensitive skin, that's another reason to skip nylon.
Is Nylon Biodegradable?
This is an easy one to answer: no, nylon is definitely not biodegradable. Nylon falls under the “man-made plastics” category because it comes from petroleum and other chemicals that are difficult to break down naturally.
While other fabrics, such as cotton and hemp, may biodegrade within a matter of decades or even less time, polymer fabrics will remain in the environment for hundreds of years. In fact, nylon can take up to 200 years before being fully decomposed if thrown away in a landfill. That means the pair of nylons your great-great-grandmother wore hundreds of years ago is probably still around!
Is nylon a sustainable fabric?
If nylon is not eco-friendly, it is even less sustainable. The methods I mentioned above of petroleum harvesting are extremely harmful to ecosystems around the world. If a fiber depends on the constant extraction of a limited, nonrenewable resource, it can never be sustainable.
Plus, it kinda goes without saying that manufacturing nylon is a very energy-hungry process, so no, definitely nylon isn't a sustainable fabric. However, on the positive side, there’s a way to make this fabric better for the environment — disposing of them properly.
Can nylon be recycled?
One way of disposing of nylon properly is to recycle it, and thankfully, some forms of nylon are indeed recyclable. However, nylon recycling still has a long way to go. Most recycling programs don't accept nylon garments, but you can still ask your local recycling facility whether they accept them or not. Is better asking than assuming!
As more recycling facilities open up to accepting nylon, one thing you can do to dispose of nylon products you no longer use properly by embracing recycling's cousin: upcycling!
You can use old nylons to tie up tomatoes that need support as they grow, fill them with lavender to use as a sachet in your car if you want it to smell fresh, or even combine them with an embroidery hoop to make a DIY microphone pop filter. Just get creative!
Eco-Friendly Alternatives To Nylon
Alright, we've already thoroughly researched what the dark side of nylon is in terms of its lack of commitment to the environment, so what do you do if you're stuck with some nylon garments but want to go green? Well, besides recycling and upcycling, there are a couple of other fabrics out there that can take nylon's place!
The first fabric I'd like to discuss is Aquafil's Econyl, a.k.a. recycled nylon, which is the most similar form of "traditional" nylon available. In essence, Econyl is made from nylon that has been recovered from discarded fishing lines and other post-consumer waste floating in the seas and then recycled into a new, durable, and much greener nylon.
Yes, it's still a synthetic polymer, and it's still not biodegradable, but it diverts waste from oceans, and its production uses much fewer resources than traditional nylon.
Now, the only downside to Econyl is that it's a tad more pricey than nylon because there are fewer Econyl suppliers, and not everyone has jumped on board with this eco-friendly alternative yet. Still, it’s definitely worth the extra money as you're getting an eco-friendly alternative to nylon! Brands like VUK Swimwear, Alice + Whittles, and even Gucci recognize it as a good alternative, so why not give it a try?
The second nylon alternative I'd like to talk about is, drumroll, please... Lyocell! A.k.a Tencel, is a processed cellulosic fiber that's made from wood pulp sourced from sustainably managed forests. Although this isn't nylon itself, Lyocell is an eco-friendly semi-synthetic alternative to nylon for those who want something a bit more sustainable for their jackets. Not to mention, Lyocell is a soft and breathable fabric that's perfect for the spring/summer months!
Also, if you're looking for a specific alternative to nylon tights, there are other much more eco-friendly fibers than nylon, such as recycled polyester, organic bamboo, and organic cotton. Just have a look at the brand Thought. They have some super soft bamboo tights that have nothing, no envy to those made of nylon!
While Nylon is Not an Eco-Friendly Fabric You Can Still Dispose of It In An Eco-Friendly Way
So there you have it! While nylon is not an eco-friendly fabric, you can still dispose of it in a way that helps the environment. In general, you should try not to throw away your clothes if they are still able to be worn or used again, but if your five-year-old nylon stockings no longer serve their purpose, an eco-friendly way to deal with them is by upcycling them. The same goes for your old socks and old bras.
Also, if you don't have any nylon garments but were thinking about purchasing some, think twice. You now know all the harm that nylon does to the environment. While there is no way to mitigate the environmental impact caused by its manufacturing process, you can help by choosing not to bring it home with you or choosing some of the eco-friendly alternatives listed above. Or you can look for second-hand items available at most thrift stores.
I don't know about you, but having Lyocell in my closet sounds way better than having nylon in it!
It only takes one person to make a difference -- so the next time you're tempted to reach for your nylon windbreaker or nylon backpack, remember that nylon comes with an environmental cost.
So, what do you think? Do you own many garments made from nylon? Will nylon be replaced by any of the eco-alternatives listed above anytime soon, or are we just stuck with this synthetic material for the time being? Let me know in the comments below!
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