S & S Spotlight: ECONYL®

ECONYL® is emblematic of the endless possibilities for the prosperity of people and the planet through waste regeneration. Some see trash, others see treasure and ECONYL® has pioneered in closed loop regeneration processes to transform the abundance of nylon waste that resides in landfills and oceans worldwide into sustainable textiles. 

The chances are, even if you haven’t heard of ECONYL® per se, you will have seen or perhaps lusted after a product that it is made of. From apparel and accessories to automobiles, upholstery and the most haute worthy soft furnishings, ECONYL® fashions fabrics and B2B projects for the likes of Stella McCartney, Brietling, H & M, Speedo and Adidas, to name but a few. 

Their vision is driven by their belief that utilising the preciousness of nature’s resources boundlessly can create a textile that does not compromise on quality. Their ethos surrounds the question if nature can transform old into new, why can’t we? This motivation of biomimicry has seen the reimagining and development of a material that is 100% regenerated and 100% regenerable infinitely and shows them as one of the principal innovators in the textile industry. ECONYL® is a revolutionary replacement for virgin nylon, which many sustainable sartorialists have black listed due to its nature as a derivative of petroleum. 

Within this third edition of S & S Spotlight, we traverse the mission behind the material and its parent company Aquafil, delving into their circular processes, sustainability corporate initiatives as well as exploring ECONYL® reimagined in its endless forms. 

We are beginning to connect our purchases with people and consider WHO made our clothes, but now the attention can also be cast on transparency and WHAT precisely do our clothes consist of? 

At A Glance 

In order to understand the roots and founding mission behind ECONYL®, one must look to its parent company, Aquafil. Hailing from Italia since 1969, The Aquafil Group is a global leader in the synthetics fibre industry specifically polyamide (Nylon 6) and is present in 14 countries employing over 2,700 staff located in Italy, Germany, Scotland, Slovenia, Croatia, the U.S., Thailand and China. 

Aquafil is headed up by CEO and President Giulio Bonazzi, who believes “Sustainability is not a goal to be reached but a way of thinking, a way of being, a principle we must be guided by.” This guiding principle drives his vision that  “When I see a landfill, I see a goldmine.” This, in turn, has manifested itself into the tangible regeneration of ECONYL® that has taken place in Slovenia and their Italian mills since 2011 and has seen their carpet recycling plants expand across the oceans stateside to Arizona. 

Fabric Facts & Properties of Nylon 6: 

-Compact molecular structure

-High level of sunlight resistance

-Excellent abrasion resistance

-High melting point (allows for pleats & creases to be set to higher temperatures) 

The 4R’s: The ECONYL® Process 

To acquaint ourselves with ECONYL®, which has integrated product life cycle analysis into the core of its intensions, we must first look to its distinct four stage production process. 

1. Rescue waste such as fishing nets, fabric scraps, carpet flooring and industry plastic from landfills/oceans.  This waste is combed, culled and cleansed to remove as much impurities from the nylon as is possible. 

2. Regenerate – This radical process sees nylon recycled back to its initial state and condition of purity rendering it the exact same properties as virgin nylon but with no petroleum derivatives, win-win! 

3. Remake Regenerated ECONYL® is remade into carpet yarn and textile yarn for the fashion and interior industries 

4. Reimagine – The reimagining services are called upon by numerous brands who wish to create their products with ECONYL® at the core. With its durability, pliability and characteristics that allow it to be recycled infinitely without sacrificing a drop of quality, it’s a no brainer for those organisations invested in sustainable products and happy customers! 

In turn, this life extension offered by ECONYL® is supported by the goal of the material to then return into the regeneration system. 

Results: This 4-stage process has seen that for every 10,000 tons of ECONYL® raw material, they are able to save 70,000 barrels of crude oil and avoid 57,100 tonnes of CO2 emissions. It reduces the impact on climate and contribution to warming by up to 80% compared with materials from oil.  

Diving Deeper 

With a brief synopsis of the ECONYL® regeneration process outlined, diving deeper into the diligent practices of the company at a level of sustainability goals and disclosure is highly valuable. 

Despite its relatively small company size, Aquafil has cascaded admirable sustainability initiatives throughout the groups organisational structure and reporting practices outlined below. 

  • Eco Pledge

-A set of guiding principles and method of conducting business. This may be responsible manufacturing that mitigates resource depletion, circular approaches to innovation that emphasise durability, promoting change amongst stakeholder groups and actively involving clients, suppliers and employees to build and strengthen collaboration within their network.

  • Energy & Recycling Operating Unit

-Energy operations saw the company use approximately 94% of their electricity from renewable sources in 2017. In particular, the electricity purchased from their American and European plants is supported by REGOs (Renewable Energy Guarantees of Origin) which confirms their use of hydropower, wind and other renewable sources. 

-Aquafil uses an efficient regeneration washing process that allows for the recovery of valuable substances like copper sulphate.

-In 2017, it founded its first cutting edge technology advanced Carpet Recycling facility in the US that rejuvenates end-of-life carpets by separating the various components and giving them a new lease of life.  

How? They send the residual propylene to plastic injection moulding industries and calcium carbonate to cement works. The captured nylon encapsulated in the carpet fluff is conserved to manufacture more ECONYL® and voila – a 360 ° approach! 

  • Dedication to Research & Development Initiatives 

-Investment is heavily focussed (46% of € 4.7 million) on funding research-led endeavours and intangible assets that reap long term economic benefits 

-This includes the development of commercially advantageous bioprocesses in manufacturing caprolactam. What on earth is bio-carpolactam you ask? This is a material derived from plant-based sources that can be used instead of petroleum-based materials used by the mass nylon industry. 

  • ECONYL® Reclaiming Programme 

-Aquafil operates an international waste collection network in collaboration with its various stakeholder groups (clients, suppliers etc). They collect waste from USA, Egypt, Pakistan, Thailand, Norway and Turkey and recover abandoned fishing nets, end-of-life carpets and fabrics, as well as nylon based plastic components. In partnership with the Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE) since 2002, they have created tangible impact through the recovering of over 200,000 tons of end-of-life carpets.

  • Net-Works 

-This initiative engages in social responsibility in collaboration with the Zoological Society of London and Interface, one of the world’s largest carpeting companies. With the aid of local communities in the Philippines and Cameroon they have reduced marine pollution through the collection of abandoned fishing nets. Simultaneously, this has given and facilitated access to finance in communities by creating networks of exchange at local and global levels. 

Source: ECONYL®

-ECONYL® is caught up in a good thing with the Healthy Seas initiative which looks to eradicate and unsully the oceans and seas of marine litter to combat ghost nets and ghost fishing. The purpose of this project is to recover derelict and abandoned fishing nets and regenerate them into ECONYL® yarn. 

-Focussing on restoration is one tangent of the initiative. In conjunction, the organisation also hosts workshops dedicated to raising awareness and educating future generations on the sustainability and impact of ghost fishing on marine biodiversity.  

From 2013-2018, they collected over 453 tons of fishing nets, equal to the hefty weight of 3 blue whales!

-In October 2018 on an expedition in the Aeolian Islands off the coast of Siciliy, they recovered 4,000kg of discarded fishing nets including a singular fishing net weighing about 2 tons from the seabed that had resided there for over 10 years. 

Healthy Seas take to the Aeolian Islands via Healthy Seas YouTube

Fishing Facts: What is Ghost Fishing?

Ghosting is a commonly known phenomena amongst us millennials to refer to the utter erasing of someone from our lives, but in the ocean context of fishing and marine wildlife this can also create significant casualties.  

Ghost fishing and the apparatus it deploys inflict injuries to sea inhabitants as well as their underwater ecosystems. It can denote illegal or unregulated fishing activities, destructive fishing techniques that take no responsibility for the correct disposal or recycling protocols AKA some seriously shady sea behavior.

It is estimated that annually approximately 640,000 tons of fishing gear is lost, irresponsibly discarded or abandoned in the seas. The desertion of ghost nets is not only responsible for the trapping of species but also the entangling of live coral, smothering reefs and introducing foreign invasive parasitic species that threaten existing biodiversity.

Here’s how it works:

1. Abandoned monofilament (invisible) ghost nets that often contain caught fish, sink to the bottom of the ocean.

2. Smaller species that exist on the sea bed feed on the entangled marine life. Coinciding with natural decomposition, this process reduces the weight of the net allowing it to re-float to the top of the surface.

3. The ghost net will drift again and thus the cycle of ghost fishing, sinking and floating perseveres.

NB* This ghosting is being increasingly further exacerbated and prolonged by the latent durability of modern fishing nets. A single abandoned fishing net could last up to 400 years in the ocean.

From a commercial standpoint, the adverse ramifications of ghost nets hinder the sustainability of ethically managed fisheries as they have the ability to damage boats and deplete the quantity and quality of livestock living in the oceans. Intangible costs sited are the spoiling of the natural beauty of shore lines and coasts which subsequently require investments for retrievals and clean ups that can harm surrounding tourism and diving industries.

Abandoned ghost nets discarded in the ocean
Source: Oliver Ridley

ECONYL® In Action

Apparel Fashioned from the Ocean 

As a revolutionary replacement fashioned from the ocean, it is no surprise ECONYL® is becoming a staple favourite substitute for virgin nylon. From high fashion to high street, the reimagining of ocean waste is now worn through garments that include performance wear, swimsuits and lingerie for the world’s largest brands. ECONYL® yarn is Stella McCartney’s selected statement supplier following her firm commitment to phasing out virgin nylon by 2020. Featured heavily in her summer 2019 collection, Stella’s designs utilise the fabric in the 2017 Falabella Go bags (including the lining) that feature the signature and iconic Falabella Chain.

On the high street, Swedish giant H & M have also experimented with ECONYL® yarns within their 7th H & M Conscious Exclusive Collection modelled by 90’s supermodel sensation Christy Turlington and Amanda Seyfriend on the red carpet. This begs the question in my mind, if ECONYL® yarn can be deployed for one collection, why can this not be diffused into the production of many?! 

Adding to the plethora of powerful partners, ECONYL® has had a long-standing relationship with Adidas that has seen 76% of the Adidas pool collection incorporate the regenerated yarn. In 2014 alone, their development of athletic swimsuits generated sales of over $750,000, indicating that as consumers we are attracted to regenerated materials and that the market certainly exists for future product development! ECONYL® is also famed for its collaboration between Parley for the Oceans and Adidas, which you can read more about in my piece on sustainable sneakers here.

Swimwear is a sure choice for sustainable brands and ECONYL® has been selected for premium brands that include La Perla, Mara Hoffman and Tropic of C, founded by goddess and Victoria Secret model Candice Swanepole. 

Aquafil’s latent ambition to be a force for good saw them create an alliance with Speedo USA to launch the first swimwear fabric take-back scheme which gives new life to leftover swimwear fabric scraps, which would otherwise be landfilled, by turning them into 100% upcycled ECONYL® nylon yarn. 

Accesorising Wearable Water Waste 

Not confined purely to apparel, ECONYL® has shown that waste regeneration knows no bounds. 

In the spectrum of premium and luxury, Brietling have adorned watches with this ECONYL® water waste having created the first ever strap made from recycled ocean plastic in the form of the Superocean Héritage II Chronograph 44 Outerknown. This lust-worthy timepiece features the NATO strap made purely from ECONYL® yarn. Their CEO, Georges Kern cited that “By introducing the ECONYL® yarn strap, we are taking another important step in our commitment to sustainability” proving that this is no trend but instead a new method of reimagining product design for the hard jewelry category. 

Stylish sunglasses developed by Karun use the nylon polymers extracted from ECONYL® to construct their eyewear, making sun protection, sustainability and blocking those rays a new trend in the accessories market. 

Innovative Interiors

Traversing across design industries, ECONYL® has established itself not only as closed loop creation for closets but also carpets! If you go googley eyed at interiors on Instagram and Pinterest, this is for you. How do you fancy Italian couture furnishings that have a zero-waste philosophy from the likes of Lorenza Bozzoli

Carpeting, whilst not a particularly exciting landscape offers a multitude of opportunities for waste regeneration and moving away from a linear production economy. 

Outerknown, a US carpet company cited that in America alone 3.5 billion pounds of carpet each year where the majority hits the incinerators and less than 5% is recycled. That’s a whole lot of floor on fire with no future purpose. However, ECONYL® has the power to process 36 million pounds of discarded carpets annually and prompts companies such as Outerknown to recognise change is under foot. 

Another long-standing valuable collaboration with Interface, has seen ECONYL® developed into the woven ‘Net Effect Collection’ fitted in spaces and featured at Clerkenwell Design Week 2016. Further projects include the ‘Human Nature Collection’ which consists of 81% total recycled content. By developing materials for Interface, Aquafil and ECONYL® contribute to the company’s programme of Mission Zero possible by 2020 which in addition to the 100% recycled nylon is seeking to introduce the 100% recycled vinyl carpeting and development of their own polyurethane material.

Aquafil even brought the glamour of a green carpet made of ECONYL® yarn to the 2018 Green Carpet Fashion Awards dubbed the “Sustainable Oscars of Fashion” last year. This is the famed industry event hosted in Milan that celebrates the commitment of luxury fashion houses to sustainability and those embracing rapid change. 

Final Thoughts  

When considering the future of sustainable material development, visionary zero-waste and viable alternatives pioneered by Aquafil in the guise of ECONYL® this presents a golden opportunity for organisations seeking to embrace a cradle to cradle design philosophy. For those brands that fashion ECONYL® into interiors, apparel and accessories, they are enabled to tangibly measure their net positive impact on environments, communities, and their wider stakeholder network. Subsequently, this allows them to push the boundaries annually in metrics regarding sustainability reporting through ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) criteria and benchmarking best practice for industry wide collaboration and marking businesses as a force for good.  

The ignition of multiple admirable initiatives such as their eco-pledge, Healthy Seas project, reclaiming and recycling centres as well as significant financial investments in research and development, underline that, when the spotlight shines on Aquafil and ECONYL®, they are establishing themselves as an archetype of innovative creativity. This engagement and positivity has enriched the sustainability strategies and stories of their ever-expanding partner list and set a baseline for industry standards.  

With the conceptual idea that doing ‘less bad’ simply isn’t good enough as we ebb ever closer to the crossing of our planetary boundaries through resource depletion and climate change, life extension through the principle 4 R’s of rescue, regenerate, reimagine and remake become increasingly sacrosanct.   In a survey of over 10,000 consumers from around the world, 78% said it was somewhat or very important for a company to be transparent, and this should translate through the textiles we wear. Curiosity may have indeed killed the cat, but it did not kill the consumer. Checking labels, questioning retailers on the provenance of our purchases, and culling those that lack commitment from our closets can allow us to be active citizens through our wardrobe choices. A X 

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