It’s no surprise that the fashion industry is among the most environmentally harmful today. Enormous amounts of waste are produced daily, often ending up in landfills and oceans to the detriment of our society and planet. As clean, ethical fashion gains momentum, new materials, resources, and information allow us to steer away from harmful practices and into the future of fashion.
Introduced in 2011, the Econyl fabric has made an incredible impact in the fashion industry through its innovative manufacturing approach and potential to create change.
Also known as Econyl regenerated nylon, this Aquafil trademarked fabric allows the notoriously waste-heavy fashion industry to change how it looks at textile manufacturing and the consequent health of our oceans.
Developed for years by their Energy & Recycling business for sustainable fabric technologies, Aquafil perfected the Econyl polymer manufacturing process. The 50-year-old yarn manufacturer revolutionized the concept of waste, using ocean and landfill waste to create Econyl products that can be regenerated indefinitely.
What is ECONYL, and how is it made?
Econyl is recyclable nylon regenerated from waste products. It’s easy to understand the positive impact this recycled fabric has on the ocean’s health when we compare the traditional nylon-manufacturing method to the innovative way of producing Econyl.
To make nylon fiber, textile companies need an organic compound called caprolactam – derived from refined oil – which means that every nylon product, from clothing to carpets, is manufactured after the extraction and transformation of oil. Unsurprisingly, oil extraction and transformation take a heavy toll on the environment.
Econyl, on the other hand, sidesteps the entire oil drilling and extraction process because the only raw materials it needs already exist: old fishing nets, fabric scraps, used plastic, and other types of ocean waste.
After the waste is collected and sorted, Aquafil removes the impurities from the raw materials (depolymerization) and then polymerizes them once again to create the needed caprolactam. After that, the material is ready to be transformed into yarn and used for various applications!
About Aquafil, the company behind ECONYL
The company was founded in 1965 and established its first production facility in Arco, Italy, in 1969. They specialized in the polymerization and manufacturing of nylon 6 fibers.
After years of perfecting nylon yarn production, in 2017, a new business unit was established in the company — Energy & Recycling — to focus on sustainability issues.
They began producing ECONYL polymer from pre and post-consumer waste in 2011 in their Julon plant in Ljubljana, Slovenia.
In 2017 Aquafil shares went public on the Italian stock exchange; this was, in part, thanks to concrete achievements like ECONYL 100% recycled and 100% performance nylon yarn. In addition, Aquafil revolutionized the concept of waste, transforming it into a raw material that can be regenerated indefinitely.
Moving even further with their sustainability aims, in 2018, the company took part in the European project EFFECTIVE to develop nylon and other textile fiber from biomaterials.
Is ECONYL really sustainable?
While ECONYL is good for the environment, in principle, it doesn’t address all of the problems related to the production, usage, and disposal of nylon on the planet. So let’s then divide this topic into two parts: what ECONYL solves and what’s still missing.
As we read before, the recycled yarn is produced from already existing nylon products, which, if not recycled, would remain polluting the oceans and landfills for many years (it’s estimated that nylon takes 30 to 40 years to degrade).
Therefore, making that waste useful again is a great way to achieve circularity and not contaminate the environment even more with the production of brand new nylon.
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If the Aquafil process were 100% perfect, they would recycle all the existing nylon an indefinite number of times, and the world would not need to produce any virgin one. Of course, that’s a massive challenge for just one company, but Aquafil aims to improve on circularity.
In recent years, Aquafil has increased the production of secondary raw materials (in particular ECONYL regenerated caprolactam) to promote a circular economy. In 2018, the overall quantity of secondary raw materials used was around 168,000 tons.
On the other hand, the are inherent problems associated with nylon production that ECONYL currently doesn’t address. The recycled fabric is produced very similar to virgin nylon, which means there’s probably water contamination, toxic substances, and carbon emissions.
Let’s remember as well that nylon is a fossil fuel-derived fabric, and hence it’s not a biodegradable product. So even ECONYL yarn will stay on the planet for a long time, possibly ending up as waste and polluting in the same way as traditional nylon.
To tackle the inherent challenges that the fabric has, initiatives like project EFFECTIVE try to substitute plastics with bio-materials. Nylon is an excellent candidate to be replaced by organic materials.
The innovative process introduced by the EFFECTIVE project begins with creating and manufacturing bio-based polyamides and polyesters and continues with a demonstration of their usability in large consumer products. Finally, the loop is closed by demonstrating circular end-of-life treatment of products.
All of these innovations, when combined, might offer a realistic way to achieve sustainability and address the current challenges that nylon products pose to the environment.
ECONYL fabric certifications
ECONYL has received several certifications, including Standard 100 certification from OEKO-TEX. You can find all other certifications here.
Econyl fabric is highly similar to nylon, meaning that most of this fabric’s characteristics will remain the same as its predecessor.
As a synthetic fabric, it is very resistant to decomposition and will take approximately 30 to 40 years to degrade. Some of its consumer-friendly features are:
- Strength and elasticity: Econyl is very often used for form-fitting clothing like stockings, leggings, tights, activewear, and swimwear for this reason.
- Water resistance: The fabric doesn’t absorb water, making it perfect for outerwear garments such as trench coats, ponchos, and umbrellas.
- Wrinkle resistance: There’s no need to worry about ironing!
- Fast-drying: This makes the fabric ideal for travelers.
- Easy to wash: To wash your Econyl pieces, avoid chlorine bleach, using only regular laundry detergent and preferably cold water. As for drying, I always prefer air drying to extend the lifespan of delicate items like tights or lingerie.
On top of its many benefits, Econyl is also an extremely versatile fabric. Its relative strength and resistance to abrasion make its possible applications endless: it can be used to create functional items such as tents, sleeping bags, and ropes, as well as to produce day-to-day accessories like luggage, gloves, and athletic shoes.
The material has gained a lot of popularity among fashionable apparel brands that are more and more investing in using ECONYL in their designs to cater to clients that care about sustainability.
As an example of the above, Prada has replaced some of its most iconic nylon products with Econyl — dubbed as Re-Nylon — and plans to substitute all its nylon with recycled material by late 2021. The material is also now famously being used for outerwear by Gucci and Burberry.
Here you can find a list of other brands that use ECONYL fabric in their clothing lines.
The cost of ECONYL fabric is slightly higher than virgin nylon. According to Vogue Business, Prada spends about 15 to 20 percent more per linear meter of the material. The cost increase is due to recovering waste nylon from the environment and the state-of-the-art process of depolymerizing and then polymerizing it back to produce the yarn.
ECONYL compared to cotton and polyester
|Softness||Not as soft as cotton||It feels crisp initially and then gets softer with use and washing||Slightly coarse; it may not be suitable for sensitive skin|
|Breathability||Not breathable; it tends to trap moisture on the skin||Cool and breathable but cannot wick away moisture||Not breathable; it will trap moisture instead of wicking it away|
|Durability||Super long-lasting and durable||It’s durable, but it requires more washes than other fabrics||Super long-lasting and durable|
|Maintenance||Easy to care for and machine-washable||Easy to care for and machine-washable||It does not require special care; machine-washable|
|Resistance to wrinkles||Yes||No||Yes|
|Sustainability||Recyclable indefinite times||There are sustainable choices, like organic cotton||Not sustainable|
|Price||Cheaper than other fabrics||On pair with other mainstream fabrics||Considerably cheaper than other fabrics|
How to care for ECONYL garments
ECONYL fabric has the same physical and chemical properties as regular nylon; therefore, the same care instructions apply. Nylon is usually very easy to wash and take care of, but it might be damaged if the proper techniques are not followed.
Remember always to check your clothing tags for specific directions, but you can use the following general advice:
- Washing. Wash ECONYL separately in a cold or low-temperature setting for best results. You can use regular laundry detergent but avoid chlorine bleach.
- Drying. If you’re using the drier machine, select the lowest temperature possible to prevent potential damage or melt the garments. Air drying might be the best option to extend the life of delicate items like tights or lingerie.
Many people believe that Econyl has the potential to make the concept of “recycling” mainstream in the fashion industry.
It’s not just a great material that makes quality products and fashion pieces but also a great way to make the importance of cleaning our oceans more apparent and tangible for everyday people.
Luxury fashion brand Prada has already announced plans to substitute all its nylon with recycled material by late 2021 with its brand of recycled nylon. Various other brands seem to be following suit!
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Of course, for our oceans to be even better, an industry-wide effort is necessary to spread awareness of this technology and encourage its use by new consumers. Hopefully, it’s only a matter of time.
Econyl seems to be getting steady traction in the industry, inserting itself as a soon-to-be staple when it comes to sustainable fabrics. As more and more brands and consumers adopt this fabric over time, our oceans will get increasingly cleaner!
If you would like to expand your knowledge about modern sustainable fabrics, make sure to check out the article I wrote about the fascinating EcoVero viscose fabric.