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Leon Kaye headshot

From Fishing Nets to Carpet, ECONYL Invests in More Nylon Recycling

By Leon Kaye

One does not have to look far to see how the production of textiles has a huge impact on our planet, water and land. And if you add the effects of the carpet industry, the story becomes even more worrisome. While carpet recycling has improved in recent years, the stubborn fact remains that the world will require more fiber — from cotton, to wool, to fossil-fuel based materials such as polyester — in the coming years. Estimates suggest the world’s demand for fibers will reach 96.4 million tons in 2020, up from 76.4 tons in 2010.

One Italian company, Aquafil, seeks to reduce that demand by improving textile and carpet recycling, educating consumers, and finding new markets for its fibers and yarns. Yesterday I had a telephone conversation with Maria Giovanna Sandrini, Aquafil’s brand and communication manager for ECONYL, to learn how this company is boosting its bottom line while raising awareness about the environment.

What’s most interesting about this firm? Your future outfit -- or carpet in the home or office -- could, oddly enough, have a tie to the fishing industry.

The Aquafil Group has produced yarns and fibers for over 40 years. A chance meeting with Interface’s former CEO, the late Ray Anderson, was part of the company’s shift towards investing in more research and development to find other ways to manufacture fibers out of materials that for decades had no other home than dumpsters and landfills.

One of the company’s most important resources is the bounty of fishing nets that can be found across the world’s ocean and seas. We already know that current methods of fishing are destructive — but the damage to wildlife often continues after a trawler peruses the high seas because many of these fishing nets are left behind. Hence ghost fishing and wasteful bycatch often continue as marine life can get trapped in these nets — and, as Ms. Sandrini noted, as many as 600,000 are scattered across the world’s seas. To that end, Aquafil has been working with a Dutch NGO, ECNC Group, to harvest those discarded nets and send them to the company’s plant in Slovenia, where about 50 employees begin the “regeneration” process.

Along with these nets, Aquafil has a worldwide program that collects carpet fluff and fabrics — 30,000 tons worth between 2011 and 2013. The company’s feedstock of choice is Nylon 6, from which the company says it can transform 100 percent into new yarn from its six-step recycling and regeneration process. The company has invested $20 million euros (US$26 million) over four years to optimize this process.

“What we do is not simply recycling — which is a noble practice,” said Ms. Sandrini during our chat. “We view it as more of a rebirth: we take that waste which otherwise has no value and transform it into a new raw material.”

And the end result is a material, caprolactam, that has a stark difference from the recycled clothing made from recycled PET bottles that has long been on that market. While PET bottles churned into fleece is a better option than sending those same bottles to a landfill, as of now there is a technical problem with those garments: Once the consumer no longer wants that jacket or shirt, it cannot be recycled. But Nylon 6 spun from caprolactam, according to Ms. Sandrini, can be reprocessed again and again, allowing for more of a closed loop system. Hence she prefers the term "regeneration" for what company does over "recycling."

ECONYL’s regenerated yarns, once they are processed at three different factories in Slovenia, are ready to be spun into new carpets, and now, garments. For now, ECONYL yarns can be found in swimwear brands including La Perla, Arena and Koru.

While Aquafil seeks new customers in the textile and garment industries, the company is also finding ways to educate consumers. One path is through a game the company has sponsored, Nylla, which prompts the user to recover waste in the ocean while avoiding marine life. “We aren’t a game company,” said Ms. Sandrini, “but we are dealing with a complicated process. We are dealing with different kinds of waste that are all important to our company. So we want children and young people to understand that waste is not simply ‘waste,’ but rather, should be considered as a resource.”

Companies such as Aquafil/ECONYL have an uphill climb as manufacturers still favor conventionally manufactured yarns and textiles, but finding those new customers should be easier as more consumers learn about how their home furnishings and garments can wreak havoc on the environment. Add the upward trajectory in the cost of raw materials, and recycled textiles will become more commonplace in the years ahead—as it should be, when one accounts for the use of pesticides, consumption of energy and destruction of wildlife.

Image credit: Wikipedia (Peter Church)

Leon Kaye has lived in Abu Dhabi for the past year and is currently spending some time in Uruguay. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter. Other thoughts of his are on his site, greengopost.com.

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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