Nylon is a synthetic fiber made from polyamide, which is derived from petroleum. It is often used in clothing because it is strong, durable, and can be stretched without breaking.
But is nylon eco-friendly, or does it harm the environment? [Spoiler - no it isn't, and yes it does!]
But what are the environmental costs of nylon production and use? Can it be recycled or re-used? And what are the alternatives?
Before you make your next sustainable fashion purchase, these are things that you need to know. So let's take a closer look.
Nylon is a synthetic material that has been used in clothing for over 80 years. It was first developed in the early 1930s as a synthetic replacement for silk.
During World War II, the use of Nylong became widespread in the US amid concerns about silk supplies. As well as nylon garments, it can be used to make nylon fishing nets, nylon stockings, and is used in the production of ropes and parachutes.
It is a synthetic fabric made of polymers, which are long chains of molecules that all have the same chemical formula but different arrangements. This variety of combinations gives nylon its resilience and durability so it lasts longer than other fabrics like cotton or wool.
Nylon is a popular fabric because it is strong, resists fading and wrinkles, and dries quickly. It can also be dyed into a variety of colors, which allows it to be easily produced cheaply and in large quantities.
It’s no wonder that nylon has become such a common material. However, the production of the fabric is not without environmental costs.
Nylon is a plastic that comes from a special kind of chemistry. One way to make nylon is by starting with two chemicals, called diamines and dicarboxylic acids.
You put these chemicals together and they become long chains of molecules, which are all tangled up in each other. When they cool down, the chains get longer and longer until the chemicals don't move anymore. If you pull on one end of this giant molecule, it will stretch out like a snake!
Nylon is not a sustainable fabric. It is a synthetic polymer, meaning it's a man-made material that doesn't occur naturally. It is derived from chemicals such as adipic acid, maleic anhydride, and petroleum, which are combined through a process known as polycondensation to form nylon 6,6 (an organic compound). This chemical reaction also involves the release of water and heat.
Nylon production takes place at what are known as "cracking plants". These plants have large smokestacks through which heat energy is released. This process, called "combustion", releases nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.
The nylon manufacturing process also uses large amounts of water, which can lead to polluted waterways. In addition, certain chemicals involved in the polycondensation process may be considered hazardous and pose a risk to health and the environment.
Although nylon production originally became widespread in the USA during World War II, the majority is now produced in China and India. That means all the associated environmental impacts, plus a huge carbon footprint to even ship it here in the first place.
Finally, because traditional nylon is not biodegradable, it can end up clogging landfills or harming the environment during its disposal.
So is nylon eco-friendly? Most definitely not.
The production of nylon fabric involves several different processes, including the use of solvents and chemicals to produce yarns or finished fabrics. Other chemicals may be added to improve color or texture. These stages pose varying levels of environmental risk, depending on the type of chemicals used.
Some of the most concerning chemicals used in clothing production include formaldehyde and perchloroethylene, which are both classified as toxic.
After it is produced, nylon fabric may be spun on machines using water-fed brushes. This process can waste large amounts of clean water and result in pollution from detergents or other substances that cannot be removed from the water.
Finally, nylon fabric requires special methods to dye and usually requires the use of large quantities of heated water for washing and rinsing after dyeing.
Nylon is a synthetic fiber made from chemicals derived from petroleum or natural gas and air and water pollution associated with nylon fabric production is exacerbated when the fabric is washed and rinsed in water, such as during the laundering process.
The disposal of nylon clothing after use may also have a negative impact on the environment. Nylon does not decompose easily and can take centuries to break down completely. When nylon fabric is burned, it releases toxic fumes into the air.
If you choose to purchase nylon clothes, it's important that they are not discarded irresponsibly by being thrown into a fire, improperly disposed of in landfills, or dumped into waterways.
There are several ways to reduce the environmental impact of nylon fabric in clothing production, use, and disposal. Manufacturers can produce products using less hazardous chemicals which would reduce toxic run-off into the environment during the manufacturing stages.
They can also improve their water management processes to decrease waste and pollution released during manufacturing or dyeing processes.
You can extend the life of your clothes instead of buying new ones. For example, washing your clothes less frequently and using a front-loading washer will use less water. When you do wash your clothes, avoid the dryer whenever possible.
Recycling nylon clothing can also reduce its impact on the environment by keeping nylon fabric out of landfills.
Finally, you could stop buying nylon garments altogether, and consider a nylon alternative instead.
With the advent of new materials such as bamboo and organic cotton, many people are now moving away from synthetic fabrics.
More and more of us are now looking for other options that benefit the environment and aren't made from petroleum. There are several nylon alternatives available.
If you want to stop buying nylon clothes and choose garments made from sustainable fabric instead, check out our guide to eco-friendly clothing brands.
You'll find plenty of smaller brands trying to change the fashion industry by using sustainable fabrics or recycled materials, and they look and feel amazing!
Speaking of which, a recent development means there may soon be a way to make nylon sustainable.
Bio nylon is an eco-friendly nylon alternative to traditional synthetic polymers like thermoplastics and petrochemical materials. It's been described as the "new green" as it is made from biomass (organic matter) instead of fossil fuels.
Using renewable resources, bio nylons are biodegradable and sustainable alternatives for industrial applications where oil-based plastics would normally be utilized. Bio nylons are also versatile - used in the manufacture of fibers, films, coating, packaging materials, and textiles.
No, nylon is not biodegradable. It is made of the chemical compound polyamide, which does not break down easily in nature.
It takes an estimated ten to fifty years for a piece of nylon clothing to decompose.
When it does finally degrade, it turns into terephthalic acid (TPA).
This chemical is found in plastic bottles, so wearing clothing made of nylon poses health risks to the environment.
Nylon may not biodegrade quickly, but it can be recycled.
It requires extensive processing and manufacturing before it can be turned back into polyamide for another product or material.
However, there are natural fabrics that are just as strong, more sustainable, and better for the environment.
Nylon can be recycled, but it isn't easy and because of this, recycled nylon can be expensive. But consumer demand means that many companies are looking to improve the process.
Compared to many other fabrics, nylon is not easily recyclable. Nylon cannot be broken down at home. It has to be shredded and then processed with chemicals in the factory. This also makes it hard for companies to give back used items because there are so many steps involved in recycling it.
Although recycling nylon does come with challenges, there are some companies that are dedicated to researching alternative processes in which they can recycle their products.
It is to be hoped that the future is either to use recycled nylon, or not to use it at all. The manufacturing process of nylon is one that chews up a lot of energy.
The production uses large amounts of electricity, water, toxic chemicals, and petroleum products. Air pollution also results from the production process. When you consider that there are already nylon alternatives available that are biodegradable, the choice becomes clear which direction should be taken.
Hopefully you already know why you need to avoid fast fashion. But we should also look more closely at what materials our clothing is made from.
Nylon may not be the best fabric for your wardrobe. In fact, there are several other fabrics that don't pose health risks to humans or animals and still have all of nylon's durability.
You should consider modal, rayon, bamboo, organic cotton, or recycled nylon when making a purchase decision in order to reduce its environmental impact on our planet.
When considering whether or not you want an eco-friendly option for clothing production, just remember these three steps:
Avoid synthetic fibers where possible. Most natural fibers biodegrade, so they are always going to be a more eco-friendly option.
Look for materials that come from renewable sources and break down easily once they become waste so you won't have to worry about it piling up in landfills.