ECONYL®: From Ocean Waste To Fashion Garments

By Viola Stancati

The fact that oceans are drowning in waste is no big news. The amount of trash in our oceans has increased so much in the past 40 years that we now have floating garbage patches three times the size of France. Now the fashion industry, one of the world’s most polluting industries, is beginning to do its part to address the problem. Amid growing consumer awareness of the sector’s environmental impact it is turning recycled materials into a mainstream fashion trend.

Among these materials is recycled nylon yarn. Nylon is hugely damaging to our environment and particularly to our seas, but fortunately, brands ranging from Prada to Stella McCartney are now using nylon yarn made from discarded fishing nets and other plastic waste in their high-end garments. That’s thanks to Aquafil, a company based in northern Italy that has been upcycling waste into a synthetic yarn called ECONYL® since 2011. It is now a primary material used in swimsuits, activewear and luxury textiles. 

“We started this journey over 10 years ago” says Giulio Bonazzi, Aquafil’s CEO. “Early on, we realised that a lot of the nylon waste included carpets or fishing nets which are difficult to disassemble. This hurdle forced us to invent and implement a new set of technologies to break down the various components while finding different purposes for each one of them to avoid sending any product to landfill. Waste for me is not something to be disposed of, but a fantastic resource. Whenever I see a landfill site, I really see a goldmine!”

  For much of its 50+ year history, Aquafil made nylon from scratch. The company benefited from the boom in demand for synthetic fibres after the Second World War with nylon valued as a pioneering fabric that was inexpensive and easy to manufacture, and could be fashioned into almost anything thanks to its strength and durability It was Giulio Bonazzi, the son of the company’s founder, who started exploring the possibility of sourcing and recycling nylon – a savvy move as the number of consumers wanting more sustainable fibres started to grow. Brands too are now taking notice. Adidas, for instance, is a partner of Parley for the Oceans, a non-profit with which the brand has created prototype clothes and sneakers made from recycled plastic sourced from ocean waste and illegal deep-sea gillnets. Others include Pangaia, which recently launched a range of recycled cashmere sweaters, as well as Balenciaga and MiuMiu, who are embracing the upcycling movement with collections made from vintage or deadstock fabrics.

Credit: Parley x Adidas Ultra Boost Collection

While the fashion industry is making positive steps to address the issue of textile waste, it is still part of the problem, since synthetic fibres such as nylon and polyester still make up about 60% of the material in clothes worldwide. As an industry that relies on 98 million tonnes of non-renewable resources per year, transitioning to more effective and efficient production processes that generate less waste needs to be a pivotal part of the solution. Addressing nylon’s role is particularly important since the fabric is highly polluting, derived from petroleum and thus depending on one of the world’s dirtiest industries. Its production requires large amounts of energy and water, and releases vast quantities of nitrous oxide in the atmosphere – a greenhouse gas 300x more harmful to the planet than carbon dioxide.

Nylon is also hugely damaging to marine life, with fishing nets made from nylon proving particularly disastrous as they entangle and suffocate countless sharks, whales, sea turtles and endangered birds. Not everyone knows that the bulk of ocean plastic waste is caused not by consumer goods such as cotton buds or shampoo bottles but by discarded fishing gear. In fact, according to Sea Shepherd, an NGO that works on ocean conservation, 46% of the 79,000 tons of ocean plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is made up of discarded or abandoned nylon fishing nets.

ECONYL products from The Minu

To source its nylon materials, Aquafil relies on several social and environmental enterprises including Healthy Seas, a global project it helped launch in 2013 with the aim of cleaning the oceans and seas of marine litter. The fishing nets collected from all over the world – from Cameroon to China – are then sent to Aquafil’s recycling plants in Slovenia where they go through a chemical process that breaks down nylon’s polymer chains into monomers and then rebuilds these into pure ECONYL® nylon. ECONYL® releases fewer CO2-like emissions compared to virgin nylon, reducing the global-warming impact of the product by up to 90%. 

Nowadays, ECONYL® nylon represents almost 40% of the entire production but as demand increases, the company hopes to double this over the next few years. Luxury brands such as Prada and Stella McCartney have entire bag collections made from ECONYL® while premium casualwear brand Napapijri launched its first circular, 100% recyclable apparel collection in 2019. Its main innovation is the mono-material composition using Nylon 6 for its filling and trims and ECONYL® as the principal fabric, allowing for a far easier recycling and upcycling process to create garments that can be reimagined infinitely.

However, while recycled materials such as ECONYL® help address the problem of polluted seas, they don’t resolve it, with microfibres found in our synthetic clothes an enduring challenge. When we do our laundry, hundreds of thousands of tiny fibres less than five millimetres in length enter the water supply with an impact across the entire food chain, as plastic is ingested by marine wildlife and even by us. The solution? Investing in a microfibre filter such as the guppyfriend or coralball can be an excellent quick fix. However, washing machines need to be designed to reduce domestic emissions of plastic fibres into our sewage system. Until that’s done, the problem of micro plastic pollution will persist. 

For too long we have depended on a make-waste-dispose production model that prioritises profit over people and the planet. This model is no longer sustainable. If we wish to keep global warming levels under the 1.5 degrees delineated by the 2016 Paris Agreement on climate, designing products that limit the amount of natural resources extracted and the amount of waste thrown into our oceans and landfills is the only way forward. “It’s important to always think about what comes next, just like in nature, where there is no waste, but instead everything is transformed into something else.”

Viola Stancati

Viola Stancati is a fashion writer and entrepreneur driven by a passion for sustainable living. She has previously worked at Eco Age and contributes regularly for Harpers Bazaar Italia.