Is nylon bad for the environment? Everything you need to watch out for.

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I have written plenty of articles about sustainable clothing, which brands are good, and which brands you should avoid. But for example, when you buy socks and don’t find yourself in an eco shop or on the zerowasteman website, it is almost impossible to find socks without nylon or another synthetic fiber. Even stretchy jeans are only stretchy because there is nylon inside of them.

So I wanted to know; if nylon is sustainable or bad for the environment and what are some eco-friendly alternatives to nylon.

What is nylon, and is nylon sustainable?

Nylon is the first synthetic fabric invented in 1935 at Duponts research facility to find a stronger and longer-lasting alternative to silk. Because it is an artificial material, it is not biodegradable. Nylon is made from chemical building blocks that make up polymers. It is derived from crude oil and gas production and, as a finished product very versatile and useful.

Nylon is a type of plastic that can be molded or shaped into anything. Nylon polymers can be mixed with various chemicals to receive different results. It is strong durable and flexible making it a perfect synthetic material with many uses.

According to Wikipedia, the first commercial use of nylon was in toothbrush bristles in 1938. Which I believe hasn’t changed to date, apart from a few brands using castor oil bristles, but I tried them and they were horrible.

During world war ii, it was used to make military equipment, like parachutes, tires, tents and many more. But before that, it was actually marketed to women as nylon stockings. However, since it is a synthetic polymer, it isn’t nice to wear on your skin. It sheds microfibers, and such small particles can be absorbed through your skin. Nylon clothes are also not breathable, leaving your skin sweaty and sometimes irritated.

is nylon sustainable

Where is nylon to be found?

Nylons use has become very popular since it is an inexpensive material to create and so versatile. The fashion industry has adopted it in many ways, from underwear to stretchy leggings and tights to swimwear and activewear. Nylon garments became a big deal back in the day and are still widely used in the textile industry today.

This is why I created this list of eco-friendly and sustainable swimwear that either uses recycled nylon or alternatives. For activewear, you can check out my review post on Fioboc. This company has created stain-proof shirts and activewear with a new revolutionary fabric called Sorona.

Nylon is also used in our carpets, making it airborne and potentially polluting the air that we breathe in our homes. Every time you step your foot onto your carpet or vacuum it, nylon particles are released.

Is nylon toxic?

This one seemed to be a bit difficult to answer.

One source said; nylon is a safe plastic material. But we all know that plastic in itself isn’t safe, meaning it leaches off the chemical building blocks making it flexible or durable or whichever need it requires.

However, wearing it on your skin can lead to irritation since it doesn’t absorb sweat, leading to bad odor and skin infections. During the manufacturing process, it will be treated with different chemicals that can lead to further health issues.

As I mentioned above, it also sheds microplastic. This is the main cause of our oceans becoming more acidic and further pollution of marine life. This adds to the problem that we humans ingest these microfibers or microplastics.

I can not stress enough how much plastic enters our bodies through food consumption and drinking bottled water. Source.

The problem we face is that nylon can be mixed with so many toxic chemicals that it can be hard to recycle, if not impossible. The melting point of nylon is very low, making it hard to recycle since it doesn’t kill off all bacteria. It requires a lot of water to clean.

is nylon sustainable
Photo by Bakhrom Tursunov on Unsplash

The environmental impacts of nylon?

  • Nylon production is very energy intensive.

  • It requires a lot of water to cool nylon during the manufacturing process.

  • It contributes to the release of greenhouse gas which adds to the whole global warming effect. Nitrous oxide is the gas that is being released and I learned it is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide, adding to the global climate crisis.

  • It does not biodegrade and sits in landfills for hundreds of years before breaking into microplastic.

Nylon accounts for around 10% of ocean plastic, mainly discarded fishing gear.

is nylon sustainable
Photo by Gary Chan on Unsplash

Can nylon be recycled?

Yes, nylon can be recycled. Since it is a petroleum-based product, just like plastic, it is recyclable. However, not every city or municipality accepts nylon in their recycling program. So best is to check with your local recycling center if they accept nylon. Sadly this is the only way to prevent nylon from just sitting in landfills for ages.

Another problem I have encountered with nylon is that it can be mixed with many different chemical additives making it hard to identify which plastic it is and essentially too complex to sort and recycle. In most cases, it is easier and cheaper to just create new nylon.

But ok, it isn’t all bad news, there are some companies that are using recycled nylon to make new nylon garments such as Outerknown and Patagonia that use recycled nylon in their products. It took Patagonia many years to figure out the process of cleaning and turning used discarded nylon clothing back into attractive new clothing.

How to care for Nylon clothing?

The best thing you can do if you own nylon clothes is to use them and, even better, extend their life expectancy so that it doesn’t end up in a landfill or elsewhere in nature. When you wash nylon, use cold water and a gentle cycle; ideally, you toss it in the guppy friend bag to catch any microplastic released during the washing process.

Let it hang dry in the sun or indoors, but avoid using iron on any nylon clothing since it may actually melt the fabric.

If you want to know what a guppyfriend bag is and how it can extend the life of your synthetic fabrics, check out this article in which I explain exactly that.

is nylon sustainable
img by Patagonia

What are some alternatives to nylon?

1. Netplus

While it is still nylon = plastic, it doesn’t need to be created anymore hence fewer carbon emissions. Today, a couple of companies source recycled nylon from fishing nets.

One company I keep coming across is Bureo. They have even partnered with Patagonia and made jackets out of recycled fishing nets. They also sell skateboard decks and the famous Jenga game made of fishing nets. They call the product NetPlus, which is derived from nylon fishing nets.

I particularly like this idea because fishing nets are known to be a silent killer and keep killing our marine life for decades, also known as ghost nets. You can check out this article if you would like to find more ways to reduce ocean plastic.

is nylon sustainable
img by bureo

2. Econyl

Econyl is another eco-friendly alternative to traditional nylon. But again, it is recycled nylon. Avoid washing your nylon clothing too often since the fibers keep breaking off and entering the ecosystem. Also, use only washing detergents that aren’t harsh on your clothes. You can check out this article to learn more about earth breeze or tru earth detergent stripes.

Econyl has a ton of companies that it supplies with regenerated nylon derived from old carpets destined for landfills, ghost nets, and pre-consumer waste. Using what already exists, they are cutting down on the environmental impact it takes to make virgin nylon.

3. Plant-based Nylon

Genomatica is a company that has developed a plant-based nylon and is working together with lululemon to face out their nylon products and replace them with a more sustainable alternative.

4. Natural fabrics.

Yep, we must go back to good old mother earth when it comes down to finding the best alternative to nylon. Even though it isn’t as strong, silk feels amazing on your skin and biodegrades, making it the best alternative.

It doesn’t leave any microplastic behind and uses no fossil fuels in the making.

Then there is bamboo rayon, another alternative that is well known in the fashion industry.

Lyocell: This is a fabric made from wood pulp that uses no toxic chemicals compared to rayon making it better and healthier for workers and the environment. Also, the wood pulp is mainly harvested from eucalyptus trees which grow quickly without any irrigation and with no need for pesticides, making it a great alternative to synthetic polymers.

What is the most sustainable fabric?

The most sustainable fabric is your skin. No jokes aside. Any fabric you use until it falls apart is more sustainable than going out and buying a new shirt every time your old one gets dirty.

I can’t afford that, and I am sure you can’t too.

But you will be surprised to learn that the most sustainable fabric is organic cotton, followed by recycled cotton and then hemp. Sure they may not be as durable but I prefer the feeling of natural fabric on my skin to something synthetic anyway.

What are your thoughts on nylon? Are you going to keep using it and wash it in a guppy bag or are you going to buy from a sustainable brand that helps to reduce nylon waste? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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Hendrik Kaiser

I've studied biology and lived for 3 years on an off-grid permaculture farm. I love kitesurfing and keeping my body healthy and fit. Hence, I care so much about keeping our environment clean and being as zero waste as possible. Being a zerowasteman is a superpower everyone has inside of themselves, and I want to teach you how you can unleash it.

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