Nylon is the first economically feasible textile made entirely in a laboratory. It’s strong, stretchy and easy to use.
Despite the rise of polyester and acrylic, nylon is a popular choice for clothes that should be both elastic and long-lasting. Whether it’s your toothbrush, umbrella, knitwear, gym wear, swimming costume or plenty of other everyday items, nylon is everywhere!
Given the popularity of this versatile fabric, a lot of people are asking how sustainable is nylon?
In short, nylon is not sustainable. From raw materials to manufacturing, nylon creates severe environmental concerns, which may not appeal to you if you’re environmentally-minded person.
In this article, we will tell you all about this synthetic fabric, why it’s not good for the environment, and what alternatives there are. Let’s get to it.
Why do people love nylon?
Nylon clothing has been a staple for several decades. Like polyester and acrylic, it’s a part of synthetic fabrics.
Nylon is a synthetic polymer fiber created by the DuPont company in 1938.
During World War II, concerns over silk supply led to the widespread adoption of nylon clothes in the US. It ushered in a new era of test tube manufacturing and has been growing ever since.
Due to its strength, flexibility and low absorbency, nylon is now widely used in sportswear and swimwear.
It may be scratchy and irritating when used separately, so it is often mixed with other materials such as cotton or polyester.
The manufacturing process of nylon
The standard nylon production process begins with crude oil, often known as petroleum. Just this fact alone can tell you that nylon isn’t sustainable.
It’s created from the polymer PA 6, which is made by extracting oil from a monomer known as hexamethylenediamine and then reacting with adipic acid.
Both these components have 6 carbon atoms. Hence, the name P 6/6.
The extraction and reaction process forms a crystalline substance in the form of a nylon sheet, which is then melted down through several small holes to harden and stretch it further.
These stretched nylon strands are then used to create nylon fabric.
Most nylon fabrics nowadays are not made entirely of nylon. They include additional synthetic or natural components, such as polyester or cotton. Fabrics containing nylon blends work best because they preserve their finest characteristics while reducing the prevalence of the qualities that are not needed much.
Nylon’s impact on the environment
No matter how good or versatile it is, nylon is not eco-friendly.
Basically, nylon is a kind of thermoplastic that is made from crude oil. It’s made from polyamides, which has similar characteristics to plastic.
Nylon is a synthetic material that undergoes a lot of chemical processes to be manufactured.
Even more, the end product of nylon also has a negative impact on the environment. Nylon items such as fishing nets cause severe damage in the water and when left discarded.
We can therefore safely say that nylon has a negative impact on the environment.
Is nylon biodegradable?
Nylon is non-biodegradable, which means it cannot be broken down into smaller pieces. Another negative point for its environmentally sustainability.
Even when compared to the manufacture of other industrial polymers, the process is inextricably linked to the petrochemical sector. This money-led sector has a far more negative influences on the current state of the global climate catastrophe than any other industry.
The production of nylon is a very water-intensive process. This is because large volumes of water are used for the purpose of cooling the fibres.
Scientists estimate that the decomposition of nylon takes around 30 to 40 years. During this period, wild animals are at the risk of consuming fragments of nylon or being trapped in nylon fishing nets – one of the major contributors to ocean pollution. While we’re on fishing, take a look at this blog on the sustainability of line and pole caught fish.
When we wash nylon garments in our home washing machines, it sheds millions of microplastics that are released into the environment and eventually make their way into the seas.
Overall, nylon is responsible for 10 percent of the waste found in our seas.
Alternatives to nylon
With many of the negative aspects known, people are moving away from synthetic fibres.
Instead, they’re opting for more sustainable materials and recycled varieties, such as organic cotton and bamboo, which are becoming more readily available. These aren’t without any environmental impact themselves but are better. You can read more about how sustainable bamboo really is here.
There’s growing concern among customers and companies for the environment, which is driving the need for sustainable fabrics.
There are fabrics that look and feel exactly like nylon and are great alternatives for nylon stockings, swimwear and activewear, Let’s look at some of them:
Recycled nylon is perhaps the best eco-friendly nylon alternative.
Remember when we said that nylon is plastic? Since most plastic forms can be recycled, nylon is no exception!
By opting for recycled nylon, we’re preventing existing nylon from being dumped in waterways or landfills. Since recycled nylon is often produced from discarded fishing nets that have been left in the sea, it will have a lesser carbon footprint than virgin nylon.
However, one of the major downsides of this fabric is it is still made of plastic, which is still not biodegradable.
With this material, you still get microplastics washed into our water streams, eventually making their way into the seas. Also, washing recycled nylon requires special care, so make sure to use a washing bag.
Viscose rayon, invented in the late 1920s, is another viable substitute for nylon.
The fact that rayon is made from cellulose – typically bamboo – means that the raw material itself is biodegradable, even though it is not particularly long-lasting.
A number of the manufacturing techniques used to produce rayon can be harmful, especially if processed mechanically.
Lyocell, also known as Tencel, is a cellulosic fibre made from sustainably managed wood pulp.
It is a semi-synthetic eco-friendly substitute that can be used for making more sustainable clothes.
Moreover, it is a delicate and breathable fabric, making it an excellent choice for the spring and summertime.
In 2020, the biotech company Genomatica announced that they had mastered a technique that produces nylon derived entirely from renewable resources – enter bio-nylons!
Like other bioplastics, bio-nylons don’t include any crude oil and are produced from natural sources. However, that does not automatically imply that they are eco-friendly.
Just because plastic derives from a natural source, it does not guarantee that it is biodegradable. Also, some bioplastics can cause damage to aquatic life.
Since they continue to rely on using virgin resources in producing new textiles, bio-nylons are not a solution to the problem of excessive garment waste. There is still a lot to be researched about them, and until we get solid proof, we cannot conclude that it is sustainable.
Wrap up about nylon
When nylon was first launched, it created a rage among trendsetters and fashion-conscious customers and was quickly embraced by the masses.
It’s quite clear though that nylon is not sustainable or good for the environment in any way.
Most of today’s customers are more cautious of the environment and are looking for more ethically-sourced fabrics. This does not include nylon.
If you wish to do your bit as well, our suggestion is to use your purchasing power wisely. Stay away from brand new synthetic materials if you can. A good green alternative though is to buy from second hand shops and charity outlets to make use of an existing resource.
Read more about different material sustainability…
Ben is the Creator and Editor of Tiny Eco Home Life. I write and publish information about more sustainable, environmentally friendly living in and around the home.
Alongside this website, I love spending time in the natural world, living a simple life and spending time with my young family (Murphy the dog!) I round up my thoughts and recent blogs on the Eco Life Newsletter.