Imagine a world where the beautiful new things we buy not only please our eyes and delight our senses, they also help solve thorny environmental problems. Where rubbish from the bottom of the sea can be transformed into fine garments to wear and quality textiles for our homes. Imagine if we could drastically cut our reliance on oil, reduce our carbon footprint and still have gorgeous, high-performing materials that we enjoy all the more because the clever way they turn waste into something wonderful.
It may sound like an unachievable recycling challenge – the stuff of eco-utopian science fiction – but look around: it’s already happening. A company called Aquafil is turning old fishing nets into virgin-grade yarns that are being spun and woven into everything from denims to swimwear, sports bras to carpets. The Slovenia-based business has developed a method of recycling nylon so sophisticated that the end product is indistinguishable from first-generation nylon. “
It’s a journey,” says Fabrizio Calenti, general manager of the Aquafil’s Textile Fibre Business Unit, when asked to tell the story of how the company decided to go down the road of radical recycling. “It started in 2007-08 with a challenging research and development adventure which involved a number of research institutes and different experts in different technologies.” The process had to include so many experts because nylon isn’t as easy to recycle as other plastics, explains Calenti.
“The most simple way to recycle plastic is you get the plastic product, you melt it, you produce a plastic chip and you reuse it. You can do it for as long as the plastic that you produce is very pure. Nylon is more complicated because the product is hardly ever pure. So if you melt a product that contains nylon, because it is not pure, you get a much lower quality. You can recycle nylon by melting it, but you downgrade. You have a high-quality product and you go to a lower quality and then to a lower quality and, at the end of the day, you cannot use it any more.
“We do a chemical recycling, so we separate the nylon from the non-nylon components, then we depolymerise the nylon chemically, so we go back to the monomer in a chemical process. By doing so what we get is pure nylon without any pollution of the non-nylon product.”
Chemically speaking, virgin nylon and Econyl – the recycled nylon Aquafil produces – are the same: they have the same atomic structure, purity and quality. Sustainably speaking, they couldn’t be more different: virgin nylon is made from oil, a finite resource with a high environmental cost; Econyl uses old carpets or fishing nets – that would otherwise trap marine life – and recycles them, using just half the CO2 emissions of conventional production methods.
That would be impressive enough, if it weren’t for the fact that no one had recycled nylon in this way before. Aquafil had to set up the entire process – from research and development into the chemistry of producing pure nylon to sourcing the actual waste it would recycle.
“The challenge was that there is no such thing as pure nylon products,” says Calenti. “Garbage collections usually focus on packaging material like glass or wood or PET bottles. Nylon is a high-performance polymer so it’s not used for packaging. The challenge was we had to focus on products containing nylon and develop technology to extract nylon from those products that’s as pure and as high performing as virgin nylon.” This quest for nylon-rich waste led Calenti and his colleagues to the recyclable materials they needed: old fishnets.
“As we are a carpet company that supplies yarn to the carpet industry, we thought carpet had to be our primary – if not sole source – of supply,” he recalls. “And we do recycle a lot of carpet. But then we started working with the fishing industry and it was a nice surprise: a lot of fishnets are made of nylon, particularly nets used in the fish farming industry.
“So we started exploring the possibility of recycling fishnets and the fishing industry was very responsive.” Now Aquafil collects fishnets from all over the world to recycle in Slovenia. All that R&D and dredging up nets from the seas floor sounds like a lot of effort to go to. Calenti concedes that it hasn’t been easy. But, he says, it’s good for business. “You might ask: why do you do that? Because you are nice people? Well yes, because of that,” he smiles. “But also, consumers are asking for it. They choose what they buy and Econyl is a product that big brands like and appreciate.
“So Econyl allowed us to do two fantastic things: to move our product portfolio from commodities to specialities, and to move our client portfolio to the best clients. We hope with the best clients … that we will be around in 10 years, then these companies are not using basic yarn, they are using the best yarn.”
Recycling old, smelly fishnets into high-quality thread; it’s a bit like the fairy story of Rumpelstiltskin spinning straw into gold. Calenti grins at the comparison. “We can hardly turn waste into gold, but we can turn waste into something of value, and this is a necessity for every industry to reuse instead of to throw away.”