Some people dislike nylon strongly because it’s synthetic and has contributed a lot in microplastic pollution, and it’s understandable. But maybe that’ll change soon, all thanks to a bacteria discovery. It can make nylon manufacturing a tad better because it doesn’t emit harmful greenhouse gases.
Scientists have developed a sustainable method of making one of the most valuable industrial chemicals in the world. This substance, called adipic acid, is a key component of the material.
Now, there are more than two million tons of nylon for clothing, furniture, and parachutes produced globally each year. This fabric has a market value of around £5 billion.
Unfortunately, industrial production of adipic acid relies on fossil fuels and produces large amounts of nitrous oxide (greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than the good old CO2). Sustainable production methods are needed more than ever so that humanity can reduce the damage to the environment.
E. coli altering serendipity
Scientists from the University of Edinburgh altered the genetic code of the common bacteria E. coli in the lab. The modified cells were grown in liquid solutions containing a naturally occurring chemical, called guaiacol, which is the main component of a compound that gives plants their shape.
After 24-hour incubation period, the modified bacteria transformed the guaiacol into adipic acid without producing nitrous oxide. Researchers say that adipic acid should be produced on an industrial scale so that we’ll have environmentally friendly nylon production.
Lead author Jack Suitor, a PhD student in the University of Edinburgh’s School of Biological Sciences, said the team is continually exploring new ways of using bacteria to produce chemicals.
“I am really excited by these results. It is the first time adipic acid has been made directly from guaiacol, which is one of the largest untapped renewable resources on the planet. This could entirely change how nylon is made,” said Suitor.
Dr Stephen Wallace, Principle Investigator of the study suggested microbes could help solve many other problems facing society.
Wallace stated, “If bacteria can be programmed to help make nylon from plant waste—something that cannot be achieved using traditional chemical methods—we must ask ourselves what else they could do, and where the limits lie,”
“We are all familiar with the use of microbes to ferment food and beer — now we can ferment materials and medicines. The possibilities of this approach to create a sustainable future are staggering.”
Eco friendly nylon?
We know that plastic is suffocating the marine life. So what do we do? Do we completely ditch nylon? Right now, fashion brands are now racing to shrink their use of the non-biodegradable material. The industry is now relying a lot on a recycling company called Aquafil.
For those of you who are not familiar with Aquafil, it basically produces Econyl, a nylon fabric made from discarded fishing nets, fabric scraps and other waste.
When the Italian company launched in 2011, we saw the material in swimsuits only (or most of the time). But when luxury brands like Prada has replaced some of its most iconic nylon products with Econyl, the industry has changed.
Aquafil claims that Econyl functions like conventional nylon during both manufacturing and wear, and can be recycled frequently. According to the company, swapping traditional nylon for their version can lead to reductions of over 50% in CO2-equivalent emissions
“You can only do [mechanical recycling] so many times before it ultimately is disposed of. I wish we had [Econyl-like] chemical recycling for polyester on a large scale,” said Richard Blackburn, head of the sustainable materials research group at the University of Leeds.
Because Econyl is basically the eco-friendlier version of traditional nylon, designers who have traditionally shunned replacement products that appeared to be of lower quality, embrace it as a direct substitute.
More expensive, but better
No denying that Econyl has a higher price than the usual, virgin nylon. However, Prada is spending about 15 to 20 percent more per linear metre on Econyl than traditional nylon because of the extra steps of depolymerising the plastic and then polymerising again to produce yarn.
Before a brand integrates Econyl into its supply chain, it needs to put it through the same testing devoted to other new materials. For a luxury brand like Kering, this involved deep collaboration with its weavers, who transform Econyl yarn into fabric. For example, suppliers need to keep Econyl production separate, to ensure it doesn’t get blended into or even mixed up with virgin nylon.
We can notice that big brands are switching to eco-friendly materials. We’ve seen credit cards using recycled ocean plastic. Adidas often collaborates with Parley, a polyester fabric crafted from ocean waste and recycled plastic bottles.
Not all eco friendly nylon are the same
If luxury brands are using Econyl, it means that they’re of top notch quality doesn’t it? Well, yes. This alternative is particularly prized for its high level of traceability since information about its sourcing and production processes are publicly available.
That’s crucial to the recycling process, because by the time the material is in the final product, Econyl is indistinguishable from any other nylon. It also helps brands meet the fast-growing demand from consumers for greater transparency throughout the supply chains that produce their goods.
“There are a lot of claims on recycled nylon as a material. What Econyl provided was full traceability of their supply chain,” said Laura Ysabel Culligan, innovation director at Burberry, who added that there are no clear standards as to what those claims could or should mean.
Fashion for Good, an industry collaborative that fosters sustainable innovations, says that Econyl does a particularly good job in gathering materials and manufacturing the raw fabric responsibly.
“If you’re using fishing nets, are you working with local communities to make sure it’s beneficial for them? Econyl does that particularly well,” said materials innovation manager Georgia Parker.
What about microfibers?
Recycled or not, nylon is still a synthetic material. So is Econyl clean of that or what? What’s the potential impact on the microplastic problem in waterways?
We all know that when synthetic clothing is washed, its microplastic fibres break down, shedding tiny fragments first in the washing machine, and eventually in rivers and oceans and even snow in the Alps.
Of course, we have this hope that Econyl won’t result in these horrible things. Unfortunately, it’s still unclear if or to what extent Econyl contributes to the problem.
Giulio Bonazzi, chief executive of Aquafil said Econyl’s structure, made from long, continuous filament, rather than shorter fibre yarns, won’t probably be an issue.
Although right now, Aquafil is working with an Italian research institution to develop a method for measuring microfibres released by garments into water. “We want to make sure that what we are doing is right — not wrong or less bad, but right,” he said Bonazzi.