When it comes to fashion’s impact on the planet, it’s easy to forget that nylon, one of our most prized fabrics of convenience is in-fact a synthetic material made of petroleum that ends up in the ocean as microplastic. Can Econyl, an endlessly recylable material increasingly favored by fashion brands be the temporary answer we’re looking for?
What is Econyl?
Econyl is a nylon fabric made from discarded fishing nets, fabric scraps, and other waste. It functions like traditional nylon in terms of manufacturing and wear. The difference is that it’s produced by a chemical recycling process that breaks it down into its core polymers (long repeating chains of molecules) that can then be reassembled into new material. This means Econyl has more than a few promising benefits:
- Continuously Recyclable: It doesn’t degrade the material with each cycle until it eventually needs to be discarded, which happens in the more commonplace method where plastic is melted down to reform into new material.
- Sustainable: It both eliminates a large amount of oil normally used to make nylon (by using existing material) and reduces CO2-equivalent emissions in its manufacture by 50%.
- Traceable: Econyl’s sourcing and production processes are publicly available, meaning it has a high level of traceability. This also helps distinguish it from materials claiming to be recycled nylon
- Economically Feasible: An exact price comparison isn’t available, but it’s fair to assume as a direct replacement for virgin nylon, it needs to keep its costs down to stay competitive until it’s more widely adopted
Aquafil currently produces two types of Econyl fibers: Its carpet fibers that are quickly replacing nylon as the material of choice for many major companies and our subject of focus, its textile fibers.
Brands catch on
The textile version is of course, softer and like nylon, is compatible with the same dyes, flame retardants and other treatments. When Aquafil launched Econyl in 2011, it was used primarily in swimsuits, which makes sense given its combination of softness and durability.
However, it was its high quality that won designers and fashion brands over who previously avoided nylon replacements because they didn’t fit the bill. Here are some using the material:
- Kering: the first luxury group to integrate Econyl into its product lines
- Prada: replaced some of its most iconic nylon products with Econyl (as Re-Nylon) and plans to substitute all its nylon with recycled material by late 2021.
- Malaika New York: Self-described “zero waste” techwear brand that uses the material in most of its items
- Burberry: Launched a capsule collection in August 2019 using Econyl, which included a reinvention of some of its iconic items
- SAINTAIA: Montréal-based swimwear company that uses it in its collections
What remains to be seen
It’s important to note that even as a product that is in theory infinitely recyclable, Econyl is not perfect. One issue facing the fabric as with most synthetics is the threat of microplastics that shed off from its fibers during washing. It’s not yet clear how much of an impact Econyl has, which is of concern given that it’s meant to ultimately reduce waste by retrieving discarded fishing nets from the oceans, not returning it to oceans in an even more harmful state.
Yet, humans show no sign of abandoning plastics because they’re frankly, just too convenient. In their clothing form as synthetic fibers, they provide the breathability, structure, heat retention and other properties we’ve come to prize in our wearable tech that helps support our modern lifestyles. Plastics are unfortunately here to stay for now.
But as Econyl becomes more popular and widely adopted in fashion, especially as luxury brands make large-sweeping ethical moves to keep them tuned in with this generation, we could see the emergence of similar closed-loop systems as the new standard. Once the highest standards of sustainability become “sexy,” there might be hope for changing both our demands and our consumption habits.