Seventy years ago this October, the world was given one of the most significant developments in artificial textiles: nylon. Initially a saviour to bare legs and parachuting WWII pilots, nylon now features in every part of our lives – from toothbrushes to violin strings.

In its heyday, in 1970, nylon made up 40 per cent of the world’s synthetic fibres, marking decades of popularity. It even left Earth in the fabric of the spacesuits that took the astronauts of Apollo 11 to the moon, and the flag they planted there. Whilst the ubiquity of nylon has subsequently dropped in comparison to the rise of the cheaper and more durable polyester, its polluting properties sadly remain undiminished. But that is finally about to change.

Image from Sustainia

Nylon has a complicated environmental record, given it requires a lot of crude oil and water to produce. However, thanks to its chemical properties, the molecules that form its composition can be unzipped and returned to their original state of ‘caprolactam’ an infinite number of times without any loss of quality or performance. A few years ago, a company called Aquafil recognised the huge potential in this process – to the tune of an investment worth $25 million, in fact – and in 2011 they launched a new industrial system for the production of Nylon 6 (the most popular form of nylon) from 100 per cent regenerated waste materials.

The result is the ECONYL® Regeneration System and it’s already saving the equivalent of roughly seven barrels of oil per tonne of regenerated polymers produced. Thanks to an international alliance around waste collection, the system is predominantly geared towards reusing two significant nylon waste products – discarded fishing nets and old carpets, the former of which accounts for as much as 10 per cent of waste found in the sea. After the fibres are separated and shredded, they are made into a yarn which can be used to create new products, such as fancy socks. 

This year, Aquafil estimates they will save more than 100,000 tons of CO2 emissions compared to the process required to create virgin polymers. Moreover, for every 10,000 tons of caprolactam regenerated with the Econyl Regeneration System, more than 12,000 tons of waste are eliminated.

Image from Sustainia

In 2005, nearly four million tonnes of nylon was produced. Given it’s a fibre as fine as cobweb, that’s a rather hefty weigh-in. So it’s good news for our climate-changing planet that the team at Aquafil has found a solution that gives nylon a renewable lease of life so we can continue to enjoy its many benefits. It certainly lends new meaning to the idea of wearing fishnet stockings.

This innovation is part of Sustainia100; a study of 100 leading sustainability solutions from around the world. The study is conducted annually by Scandinavian think tank Sustainia that works to secure deployment of sustainable solutions in communities around the world. This year’s Sustainia100 study is freely available at www.sustainia.me – Discover more solutions at @sustainia and #100solutions

Read more from our climate change content series as we explore everything you need to know in the run up to Paris 2015.

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