Nylon is everywhere. It’s in your stockings, dresses, outerwear, and even on the string of your beaded bracelets! And it’s no surprise, either. Nylon is strong, elastic, low-cost, and relatively lightweight.
Nylon fabric has been popular for almost a century now. And with its still prevalent use in multiple industries (e.g., fashion, electronics), it’s crucial to ask the question: is nylon eco friendly? Is nylon sustainable? And if not, what are some sustainable alternatives to this fabric?
Put simply, though, nylon is not eco friendly. Virgin nylon production comes with many environmental drawbacks, and the fabric’s life cycle isn’t exactly the best.
It could pollute our oceans and harm marine biodiversity—nylon fishing nets we’re looking at you—among many other environmental ramifications.
But as always, we need to examine a fabric further to truly and holistically understand how it affects us and the environment. Let’s start with specific details on how a synthetic material like nylon is made.
What is Nylon And How Is It Made?
Nylon: The First Synthetic Fabric
First introduced by DuPont in the late 1930s, nylon is an entirely synthetic fabric—and the first fully synthetic one at that! When it was first released, it was initially sold to women (i.e., women’s stockings), hence the strong connection between stockings and nylon.
However, when World War II rolled around, nylon’s use quickly ballooned to war applications such as parachutes, ropes, and other types of military equipment. As silk prices and supply during this time were incredibly volatile, the development of nylon helped protect the US from supply shortages.
Today, nylon is still used in various industries, and you will even find it in your cookware! However, it remains most popular among synthetic fabrics, aka your clothes.
As a synthetic polymer, new nylon has to go through an extensive process to transform the raw material (i.e., crude oil or petroleum) into the strong, synthetic fibers used to create nylon garments and other nylon products.
The Nylon Production Process
The typical nylon manufacturing process starts with petroleum, otherwise known as crude oil. A monomer called hexamethylenediamine or diamine acid must be extracted from the oil and forced to react with adipic acid, creating the polymer PA 6,6.
Each of these two components has six carbon atoms, which is why it’s called PA 6,6.
The resulting polymer is a crystalline substance and must be melted down from its nylon sheet form to be extruded through spinnerets. Spinnerets are devices with numerous small holes from which the molten material must pass through.
As the polymer passes through the holes of a spinneret, it will immediately harden and will be stretched for further durability. Finally, nylon is made by turning these stretched fibers into fabric.
Today, most nylon fabrics are not 100% nylon but are blended with other synthetic materials like polyester or natural resources like cotton. These fabric blends made of nylon perform best since they allow nylon to retain its best qualities without suffering from less desirable ones.
And although the process seems pretty straightforward, its impact on the environment is nothing but. Now that we know how it’s made, it’s time to ask ourselves: is nylon eco friendly and sustainable?
Is Nylon Bad For The Environment?
As explored in the manufacturing process, making nylon takes a lot of chemicals and energy, and the entire process emits plenty of greenhouse gases.
In fact, nylon’s impact on the environment begins where the raw material for nylon is sourced.
Petroleum or crude oil sourcing has long been an issue for environmentalists and indigenous people. Many major oil corporations use indigenous land and leave behind toxic waste, causing environmental harm and numerous health issues that plague the community long after the mining companies have left.
Moreover, nylon’s negative environmental impact is exacerbated by how its made. And with many harmful chemicals used in the process, it’s no wonder why nylon has a bad environmental reputation.
The use of adipic acid also creates nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that typically comes from food production. The bad thing about nitrous oxide is that it can be 300 times worse for global warming than carbon dioxide .
And it doesn’t stop there either. Even if nylon is already in consumer hands, they still have an environmental footprint. They shed microfibers whenever washed, and these microfibers eventually end up in our aquatic environment.
And when it is time to lay your nylon stockings to rest, they may still end up in the oceans, causing water pollution and harming local biodiversity. Although we can’t do much about the nylon process before it ends up in our hands, we can definitely do something positive when we need to dispose of it.
Since nylon is essentially a form of plastic, it can easily be recycled. Check if you have a local recycling facility that takes nylon fabric, and make sure to send in your nylon clothes when they’re at the end of their life.
Can Synthetic Fabrics Like Nylon Ever Be Sustainable?
Given how pervasive nylon is in our daily life and its environmental impacts, most of us would like some form of compromise. Is it possible to find actually sustainable versions of this fabric?
Unfortunately, this won’t be easy to achieve. The production process, coupled with issues with the product’s end of life, makes it very difficult to imagine nylon as a sustainable product. Even its recycled version (which we discuss further below) is merely the better option and not outright sustainable.
It’s high time we stopped looking towards plastics as possible sustainable alternatives. Because unless we can manufacture them in a way that doesn’t require the excessive use of nonrenewable resources, none seem like solid solutions.
Is Nylon Biodegradable?
Unfortunately, no. Conventional nylon is not biodegradable since it is made of synthetic fibers. Unlike similar fabrics like viscose rayon, which are semi-synthetic, nylon is not, in any way, a natural fabric.
However, there has recently been news about bio-based nylon! Genomatica has created plant-based nylon that requires no crude oil to manufacture. But the product is still in early development and is not yet ready for industrial levels of production.
This novel nylon is made through fermentation. The sugar found in plants is fermented to produce a chemical intermediate for the nylon most of us are familiar with. The chemical is further processed into nylon chips to produce nylon yarn. 
However, as this is still a new product, we can’t say for sure how this fits into the narrative of sustainability in the long run. That said, we are excited to see if this new concept of bio-based nylon provides truly sustainable fabric.
Alternatives to Nylon
The best alternative to synthetic materials will always be natural fibers. To any extent possible, we would suggest replacing your nylon clothes with fabrics that have a lesser environmental impact. But we know this isn’t always possible.
Recycled Nylon (Econyl)
Recycled nylon is perhaps the most viable alternative to nylon. It’s the exact same material as the nylon we are used to but made using a less environmentally harmful process.
You may also hear recycled nylon being referred to as Econyl, which is the product’s patented name.
This regenerated fabric is often made from nylon fishing nets and other forms of nylon waste. In essence, it is still made from synthetic fibers and is virtually the same as conventional nylon.
However, since recycled nylon does not use virgin raw materials, it is more eco friendly. It also uses less water and energy overall.
On top of that, recycled nylon will help eliminate nylon waste in our environment, which comes in the form of fishing nets, clothing, and many other nylon products. Generally speaking, recycled materials like Econyl are suitable for eliminating waste, but they also have drawbacks.
For one, recycled nylon isn’t biodegradable since nylon typically isn’t. This means the recycled alternative could still very well pollute our oceans and cause harm to the environment. Plus, the fabric will still shed microplastics since it is, after all, essentially the same as nylon.
To add, the nylon still has to undergo a process to convert the retrieved material into nylon that is ready for commercial production. This process may or may not involve more toxic chemicals and energy.
However, it is quite the consolation that manufacturing recycled nylon can result in carbon emission savings of up to 90% as it is less water and energy-intensive.
Presently, nylon is also the more expensive option. But as sustainable options continue to grow in popularity, we can also expect that recycled nylon will inch closer to the price of conventional nylon due to the effects of scaling.
Here at Puratium, we always advocate for the best options. In some instances, recycled nylon might be your best option, and such is the case when you want to buy performance-based clothing like swimwear or sportswear.
Are There Plant-based Alternatives to Nylon?
There isn’t one single plant-based fabric that can mimic exactly all properties of nylon. But that doesn’t mean you won’t be able to find plant-based alternatives to your nylon clothes.
For instance, your shirt with a nylon or polyester blend could easily be replaced with one made of organic cotton or linen. The same goes for your sweater made of nylon that you could replace with wool (if you’re not vegan).
Generally, you will find the closest resemblance in fabrics that nylon was patterned after, case in point, silk. But even so, the way nylon is used now is different from how silk is applied in fashion. Plus, it’s much more expensive than nylon.
With hosiery, you might have difficulty finding plant-based options. So we recommend going for recycled options instead.
Caring For Nylon
Since nylon is incredibly prevalent in the fashion industry—around 12% of all clothes have nylon in them—it’s almost impossible to avoid it entirely. And if you can’t, we wouldn’t blame you at all!
With that in mind, though, what we can do is take care of our nylon products as much as possible. Those stockings and shirts have limited lives, but you can still extend their use through diligent care. Here are some of our tips for nylon care:
Handwashing Is Best
Technically, you can still machine wash nylon articles, especially the more sturdy ones like tops and coats. However, make sure to wash nylon clothing separately from other fabrics when doing so.
Keep in mind that using washing machines will shorten the life of your nylon clothing, no matter how sturdy it is supposed to be.
When working with more fragile articles like nylon stockings or lingerie, always hand wash them. This will help keep the integrity and stability of your stretch clothing, thus making them last longer in your closet.
In cleaning nylon clothing, hang drying is your best friend. Whenever possible, always hang dry your nylon articles, and make sure to avoid any straining or stretching when hanging. You may also lay them flat to dry.
Some nylon clothes may be tumble-dried, but it is generally advisable to use the lowest heat level for this. And if you do, it will considerably shorten the life of your nylon clothes.
Use a Laundry Bag
Whenever you don’t have time to handwash and the only choice is to put your pantyhose in the wash, it’s best to put them in a laundry bag. This will help ensure your more fragile nylon pieces don’t accidentally end up getting torn during the cycle.
To help with the microplastic problem, there are also laundry bags that can filter out microplastics, such as the Guppyfriend washing bag. Although it doesn’t really make the microplastic disappear, it prevents the tiny synthetic polymers from ending up in our oceans.
That’s pretty much all you need to know about nylon! We hope this article added to your growing body of information on sustainable fashion.
And so, is nylon eco friendly? Should we get rid of everything that’s nylon in our closet? As always, the answer is complex.
For a product that is so integrated into our way of life, it’s tough to say you should get rid of all your nylon immediately!
However, it is within reason to continuously assess and reflect on how our consumption choices affect the environment. Where applicable, we highly recommend replacing nylon with something more sustainable and always purchase from a sustainable brand you trust.
A bit funny, a bit whacky. Lots of curiosity, lots of creativity. All for organic, minimalism and local. More of zero waste, more for our future 🌿