Is nylon biodegradable? Can it be composted?

  • Date: May 14, 2022

Nylon is one of the most widely used materials in the world – its properties make it extremely adaptable. It has been around a while. First invented in the late 1930’s, it can now most likely be found in most rooms in homes across the country. From fishing to garments in the wardrobe, we use it a lot! But what about when it comes to the end of its useable life? Is nylon biodegradable and can it be composted?

A brief bit background – how is nylon made?

Nylon is a synthetic plastic material with a smooth, silk-like quality to it. The components needed to make nylon are derived from crude oil. To put it mildly, its ‘green’ credentials could be regarded as questionable!

In the energy-intensive process, building blocks (the monomers) join with each other to form long chains known as polymers. It is a bit like joining paperclips in a chain with the paperclips representing the monomers. Each polymer can contain an incredible 20,000+ monomers. Water is also produced during the reaction, but this must be removed so that it does not inhibit the polymer from continuing to grow.

There are several different types of nylon, largely dependent on their chemical structure.  For example, nylon 6-6 are adipic acid and hexamethylene diamine. Despite being chemically different from each other, the different types of nylon share common properties: strength, durability and mouldability.

Is nylon biodegradable?

If a material is biodegradable, it can be broken down naturally by micro-organisms. Unfortunately, nylon does not fit into this category – it is not biodegradable. More than likely, nylon shirts or leggings that you wore several years ago are still sitting in landfill – taking up space and contributing to the negative landfill environmental impacts.

When nylon breaks up rather than breaks down. It simply breaks up into smaller pieces. It will always be there in some form – just in tiny little bits, which can often be even more harmful for the environment than not breaking down at all. This is no surprise since nylon is, essentially, a plastic. Natural materials, like silk for example, take a fraction of the time to break down with the help of micro-organisms.

Can nylon be composted?

Composting is a great way of disposing of organic waste. It provides a nutrient-rich fertilizer for the garden whilst diverting the waste from landfill. Everybody wins! However, micro-organisms are key to the process and nylon, and synthetic materials in general, are not their favorite thing to snack on. Nylon that ends up your compost bin will remain there for a very long time – best go and sift it out!

However, it’s not all doom and gloom when it comes to nylon…

Firstly, nylon is actually a really durable and long-lasting material – when treated with care! You can divert you items from landfill for a long time just by following the guidelines on the garment care label. But generally, you can’t go too far wrong if you hand wash them in cooler water and hang them to dry in the sun. If you don’t fancy wearing it after a season or two, it will be in good condition to pass on to a friend or charity.

Nylon recycling is also becoming more common.  From skateboards to swimwear, the possibilities are increasing year-on-year. However, recycling nylon comes with its own problems. It is an expensive process and nylon needs a lot of cleaning prior to recycling – it is not processed at a high enough temperature to remove all contaminants. Despite the downsides, it is possible and it comes with several benefits too. As well as reducing the nylon items in landfill, it reduces the need for petroleum to be sourced and cuts back on the greenhouse gas emissions of the manufacturing process. Hopefully as processes are tweaked and improved it will become easier, more cost effective and more common!

The bottom line

Unfortunately, nylon is neither biodegradable nor compostable. It is becoming increasingly common for nylon to be recyclable, but this is not as mainstream as recycling, say, paper. It is a more complicated and expensive process. Our advice? Avoid nylon if you can and opt for natural materials. Although no fabric is perfect when it comes to its ‘green’ credentials, disposing of natural fabrics tends to be a lot less harmful to the planet.