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Plant-based version of nylon fabric is on the horizon

As the fashion industry looks for ways to shrink its environmental footprint, two companies have partnered up to create a sustainable nylon fabric from plant-based materials.

Nylon was the fashion industry’s first ever lab-made fabric. Today, it stands as the most environmentally problematic.

Nylon first gained popularity during the 1940s, replacing expensive and hard-to-source silk used for ladies’ stockings, a fashion staple at the time. It also came in handy during World War II for its strength and durability, which saw it incorporated into military products such as parachutes, tents, ropes, and tyres.

But nylon is made up of synthetic plastic fibres derived from crude oil processed using chemicals and heat, which makes manufacturing it highly pollutant and energy-intensive.

Nylon not only requires the use of large amounts of water for cooling the plastic fibres after heating, but also releases tons of nitrous oxide in the atmosphere in the process – a greenhouse gas that is 300 times worse for the environment than CO2. Yikes.

 

Around 12 percent of the world’s total synthetic fibre production consists of nylon, with 8 billion pounds of it produced every year.

On top of this, 60 percent of clothing currently produced contains some form of synthetic material. The fashion industry has quickly solidified itself as a top contributor to ongoing environmental degradation.

On the upside, nylon is essentially plastic, meaning it can be recycled. Brands like Patagonia and Stella McCartney have started upcycling old nylon fabric into new garments, but wouldn’t it be better to eliminate our need for plastic-based fabric altogether?

The good news is, we might have the option to soon. The biotech firm Genomatica and sustainable textile company Aquafil have banded together to successfully produce pilot-scale quantities of a plant-based nylon alternative.

 

The plant-based nylon is derived from food materials such as sugar cane and industrial corn, which Genomatica then converts to nylon-6 polymer in its labs.

The chemical structure of the plant-based version is identical to traditional nylon, meaning it can replicate the stretchy, smooth feel you’d expect to get from tights, stockings, yoga leggings, and other fitness apparel.

Genomatica and Aquafil say transforming the polymer into nylon applications – including yarn that can be used for textiles – is the next step, with a date for commercial rollout of the fabric still pending.

It’s encouraging to see biotech firms collaborating with textile producers to develop eco-friendly alternatives to the synthetic materials we’ve come to depend on so heavily for in worn and household goods.

 

The motivation to do so has been amplified by the climate crisis and evidence of how these materials are affecting our local environments.

Experts warn that 33 percent of the dust found floating in our homes is actually made up of microplastics from synthetic textiles like nylon, causing concern amongst health professionals who say we are breathing and ingesting these chemicals on an everyday basis.

Considering this, it’s no wonder that tiny particles of plastic have been found inside human blood – the consequences of which are still unknown.

With a safer and potentially biodegradable alternative to nylon being prepared for commercial production, it looks like brands will soon have the option to use eco-friendly materials that help them – and their customers – get closer to their ambitious sustainability targets.

This, Genomatic and Aquafil say, is the driving force behind making plant-based nylon the new standard.

 

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