The Environmental Impacts of Nylon

Nylon is synthetic man-made fiber derived from petrochemicals- a thermoplastic – which is used extensively throughout the fashion industry. It is extremely versatile, and is used for everything from stockings and parachutes, to carpets, packaging and even car parts. The sheer breadth of nylon’s uses means that it is difficult to uncover what the overall contribution of nylon in fashion is to climate change and environmental harm. But we can consider the impact of polyester to get a general sense of this. Nearly 70 billion barrels of oil are used every year to produce polyester. Although more polyester than nylon is produced each year, nylon requires more energy to manufacture.  Nylon is also three times more energy intensive than cotton to produce. Considering this we can start to get a sense of the scale of the impact.

One of the early Dupont nylon manufacutring plants in the 1940s

One of the early Dupont nylon manufacutring plants in the 1940s

Nylon is a man-made polyamide . Naturally occurring polyamides include wool and silk, and these are the sorts of fibers that nylon replaces. It is hard-wearing, and was introduced to fashion in the 1930s as a long lasting alternative to silk stockings. It then replaced silk in military parachutes during the Second World War. If the quality had stayed the same, this may not have been such a problem. But these days poor quality nylon is the norm, and many nylon products do not last well as they should. High quality nylon is hard wearing and lasts well.

The production of nylon results in the release of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that has a significant contribution to global warming. Emissions from a single UK nylon plant in the 1990s were thought to have a global warming impact equivalent to more than 3% of the UK’s entire carbon dioxide emissions.

Nylon is also not suited to natural dyes and lowest impact chemical dyes, meaning that the process of colouring the fiber also creates significant water pollution. With more nylon being produces in countries with weaker environmental protections in place, this make nylon a significant contributor to water pollution, and thus water insecurity in the developing world. However, nylon is also less water intensive to produce than natural fibers, so some of the fibers impact on water is mitigated by this.

Nylon is not biodegradable, and will persist in the environment indefinitely. The two of the largest sources of microplastic pollution in the ocean are nylon fishing nets and synthetic textile fibers that wear off during washing. This means that the impact of nylon on the aquatic environment is significant.

Nylon

On the positive side, the persistent nature of nylon means that it is infinitely recyclable and we could cease new nylon production now and still meet our desire for nylon if we recycled all of the nylon currently in existence. But that is a big “if”. For this to happen we would need to increase the accessibility of nylon recycling schemes to the average consumer. Some nylon recycling program already operate, but these are far from ubiquitous.

Econyl is a certified recycled nylon textile which is made from used fishing lines and other post-consumer waste that have been collected from the oceans. Recycled textiles allow designers to access the functionality of nylon, and contribute to a good environmental outcome. However, the recycling process is still energy intensive, released greenhouse gases and uses more harmful chemical dyes.

If you are looking to minimise the environmental impact of your wardrobe, I would recommend buying recycled nylon for garments such as swimwear and pantyhose, where the the functionality of nylon is difficult to match by natural fibers. But replacing nylon with the most sustainable natural fibers where ever possible. If you have nylon garments that are wearing out, it is also worth investigating whether these can be recycled in your local area.

What about you? Do you own many garments made from nylon? Are there particular uses of nylon that you think are essential?

Guide to Sustainable Textiles

If you enjoyed this post and want to be better informed about the sustainability of your favourite garments, then you will love my Guide to Sustainable Textiles.

If you want to cut through the greenwash, and confidently assess the sustainability of your favourite clothing labels, this is the guide for you.

Covering the 15 most common textiles, the guide goes through all the major environmental and social impacts of each fabric so you can choose your garments in line with your ethics.

Currently available for only $9. For more information and to buy, visit the Guide to Sustainable Textiles


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Photo By: “Women show off their nylon pantyhose to a newspaper photographer, circa 1942,” notes historian Jennifer S. Li in “The Story of Nylon – From a Depressed Scientist to Essential Swimwear.” Photo by Dale Rooks.