Is nylon bad for the environment?

  • Date: May 14, 2022

More than likely, nylon can be found in every room in every home across the country. Its properties make it suitable for lots of types of products – from toothbrush bristles to stockings. As more and more people are aiming to live an eco-friendlier lifestyle, items we use in everyday life are under scrutiny. With nylon being such a widely used material its green credentials are important. So, is nylon bad for the environment?

Where does nylon come from?

Before we delve into the environmental impact of nylon, lets have a look at where it actually comes from and how it is made. This might throw up some clues.

Nylon is a synthetic polymer that was first invented in the late 1930’s. It is made when the building blocks, monomers, connect with each other to form a long chain (the polymer). Water is produced during the reaction, but this must be removed so that it does not inhibit the polymer from continuing to grow. Each polymer can contain an incredible 20,000+ monomers. Essentially, nylon is a plastic.

It should also be noted that there are several different types of nylon, largely dependent on their chemical structure.  For example, nylon 6-6 are adipic acid and hexamethylene diamine.

So, is nylon bad for the environment?

Impact of nylon manufacture

Manufacturing nylon comes with a whole host of environmental impacts. The building blocks in conventional nylon are derived from fossil fuels. Producing nylon supports the fossil fuel industry – an industry that leads to land degradation, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

The manufacture of nylon is extremely energy intensive – more than likely, the energy will not come from clean, renewable sources either! It also requires a large amount of water, especially in the phase where the fibers are cooled. 

But the impact does not stop there. Nitrous oxide is released during the process due to the need for adipic acid production. For each kilo of adipic acid produced approximately 30 grams of nitrous oxide is said to be released. This will contribute significantly to climate change.

Nylon is not biodegradable

A material is biodegradable if it can be broken down naturally by micro-organisms. Unfortunately for the environment, nylon does not fit into this category. Since it does not biodegrade, this means it is not suitable for the compost pile like natural fabrics.

Most likely, your nylon stockings will end up in landfill where they will take decades to breakdown. Adding to landfill itself has major environmental impacts – nylon contributes to this.

Microplastic pollution – every time you wash

Every time we wash our clothes that contain nylon they release microfibers that ultimately end up in the waterways. These microfibers shed from our synthetic products are a significant source of pollution. These microplastics are not just shed from nylon – they are also shed from other materials such as polyester and acrylic. When you consider that these synthetic fabrics make up approximately 60% of clothing worn, you can see the extent of the problem we face.

The microfibers can not be filtered out by the wastewater treatment facilities and end up in the ocean. Not able to tell them apart from food, species eat these microfibers, and they ultimately end up on your dinner plate. These are ways to reduce the amount of microfibers being shed – for example, decreasing the length of time of a washing cycle – but it can not be eliminated completely.

But its not all bad news…

Nylon can be recycled

Recycled nylon is getting more common as new, more eco-friendly ways of doing things are discovered. From socks and skateboards made from old fishing nets to swimwear, the possibilities are endless. However, it should be noted that recycling nylon comes with its own problems – it is not a cheap process and it requires a lot of cleaning prior to recycling. It is possible though. Hopefully as processes are tweaked and improved it will become easier, more cost effective and more common!

Bio-based nylon

Plant-based nylon is now a thing of reality. Genomatica have announced the first commercial production of a bio-based nylon. They have found a way to produce caprolactam, the building block of nylon-6, by fermenting plant sugars.  In conventional nylon, caprolactam is derived from fossil fuels. Although not mainstream yet, research into these types of fabrics and how to make them more sustainable is well underway!

The bottom line

Nylon is an extremely versatile material. However, it has significant environmental impacts at different parts of its lifecycle – from manufacture to disposal. The manufacture of nylon uses large amounts of resources, from water to energy, and produces dangerous greenhouse gases in the process. Improvements in manufacturing could cut this down significantly. However, the issues with microfibers being shed when items are worn and washed is a lot more difficult to prevent.