Considering materials: Econyl

Published on 05 January 2021

Many car brands use Econyl in the floor mats of their car models, but it can also be used in the seat upholstery. The benefit: Econyl upholstery lasts longer and is renewable. Again after again, without loss of quality.


Text Jens Holierhoek

Unsplash

It is becoming more and more common, in furniture and clothing, but also in cars: Econyl. It is like a magic fabric: it is made of waste, including fabric residue from the clothing industry, plastics and discarded fishing nets that are floating in the ocean. Econyl is already used as a product name, but is actually a brand name. It is manufactured by the Italian company Aquafil, a major player in the field of synthetic fibres. The family owned company Aquafil was established in 1969 and has since developed from a manufacturer of the well-known material nylon – nylon 6 to be precise – to a manufacturer that recycles nylon.

Reuse without loss of quality

In 2011, Aquafil began investigating whether it could recycle nylon. Nylon is a synthetic textile fibre made from polyamides, and there seemed to be interesting applications for this. All the more because Aquafil already manufactured nylon 6, a type of nylon that can be de-polymerized and re-polymerized without loss of quality. Or in layman's language: The building blocks of this fabric can be disentangled and assembled infinitely, similar to Lego. After some experiments Aquafil invented Econyl: Composed of discarded nylon, but retaining the qualities and properties of ‘virgin nylon’.

Ocean waste

Aquafil sourced the nylon for its Econyl from materials everyone gladly wants to get rid of: Discarded fishing nets. These nets represent about 10% of the waste in the oceans and they threaten sea life. In addition, fabric residue from the clothing industry is used. These days, the Italian company recycles 40,000 tonnes of waste per year. This means that the company saves 280,000 barrels of crude oil and prevents 260,400 tonnes of CO2 emissions per year.

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"It was always easier to throw them in the sea, but now we can pay for these materials. Better communication and collection of materials can help us"

Closing the chain

Nylon 6 can be recycled almost infinitely, and thus the key to the closed loop has been found. Although Aquafil warns that sufficient supply of raw materials is needed to scale up production. “The market needs to organize itself better, but I think ten or fifteen years is a plausible timeline," says director Giulio Bonazzi. Among other things, better legislation and regulations must ensure discarded nylon is not added to the waste mountain. It is also important to raise awareness that old fishing nets still have value. “It was always easier to throw them into the sea, but we can now offer money for these materials. Better communication and materials collection can help us," said Bonazzi during an interview with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Better than the original

Bonazzi points out that the recycling system that Aquafil uses is rather complicated. “It is nothing like recycling PET bottles. We do not simply melt pieces of bottle together, which is what the majority of PET recyclers do. We regenerate the waste material; that is to say we process it so that it can be reused. It is even possible to start with an inferior product and turn it into a higher quality product." Where recycling often involves down-cycling – the quality of the product is deteriorating – Aquafil upcycles the product.

Applications

This is good news for the automotive industry! Several car brands already use Econyl for their car models. And these are not minor brands. The floor mats of the new Mercedes-Benz flagship, the prestigious S-Class, contain Econyl. Jaguar Land Rover has also discovered Econyl for its floor mats. And BMW has already used it in its electrically powered i3, and Volvo in its V90. Econyl can also be used in seat upholstery. Currently, car manufacturers often use yarn based on PET plastics for this, but that material is heavier and less elastic than Econyl. Econyl upholstery also lasts longer and it is renewable. Again and again, without loss of quality.

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“Nylon is a high-quality polyamide that theoretically could even be used to make new airbags. It is a shame to dump it or burn it ”

From nylon to Econyl

Discarded nylon is first taken to a waste processing centre, where it is made suitable for further treatment. All by-products – such as metal from fishing nets – are separated. The next step is treatment at the chemical plant, where the de-polymerisation takes place: The nylon is broken down to the original raw material. From this raw material Aquafil creates new yarn with the same characteristics as the original: Econyl.

‘Give new and unused nylon a second lease of life’

The company Genius, which we have previously brought to your attention in Green Light, is reusing as much nylon as possible from airbags. Founder and owner Erwin van Dooren: “Nylon is a high-quality polyamide that could theoretically be used to create new airbags. It is a waste to dump it in landfills or to burn it. I prefer to retain the material." The recycled nylon is used, for example, to create nylon bags, backpacks and feed bags for horses. You can read the article ‘Give new and unused nylon a second lease of life!’ here.

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