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EFF SOURCE Fashion business success without compromise

13 November 2013

From Waste to Wear: ECONYL® recycled nylon is cleaning up our seas

Contributor Sarah Ditty

Healthy Seas socks

SOURCE Intelligence Editor-in-Chief, Sarah Ditty, visits the Healthy Seas initiative in Slovenia to find out more about the ECONYL® closed-loop process for recycled nylon yarn - from sea to final fibre. Find out why ECONYL® is the new go-to fabric for swim and sport wear.

The vitality of the ocean is in serious trouble. In a recent article, yachtsman Ivan Macfadyen described his extensive and rather harrowing experience of traveling the Pacific and how over the last few years the ocean has become a literal wasteland.

Just to paint a picture of the level of waste we humans collectively generate, it has been estimated that about 600 billion plastic bags are used every year with each bag having a lifespan of 15 minutes. And collectively, we throw about 35 billion plastic bottles into the bin.

With roughly 8 million pieces of waste going into the ocean, every single year, this means that for every 1 kilogram of plankton, there is 6 kilograms of plastic in our seas.

Rubbish is literally filling up the ocean, with the Texas-sized garbage island as one of the most illustrative examples.

‘Ghost fishing’ – from a problem to a solution

The global fishing industry is worth about $92 billion USD per annum at the first stage of trade. This is big business and requires big fishing nets to supply the huge amount of stock required to fulfill increasing global demand.

Some fishing nets are big enough to hold 13 jumbo jets – these are commonly known as ‘super trawlers.’ It’s all too common that disused fishing nets are left to wreak havoc to undersea ecosystems. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), nearly 640,000 tons of fishing gear – 1/10th of all marine litter – has been left abandoned in our seas.

Some 130,000 whales and dolphins and 40,000 seals die every year due to net entanglement. This is commonly known as ‘ghost fishing.’ And monofilament (what fishing nets are typically made from) can take up to 600 years to biodegrade.

Image credit: Peter Verhoog / Dutch Shark Society

With less than 1% of the ocean fully legally protected and less than 3% somewhat protected, the chances the scale of these issues will grow is high.

One pioneering initiative is beginning to tackle some of these problems with creative, productive solutions. Healthy Seas has quite literally created a journey from waste to wear.

ECONYL® – Turning fishing nets into fashion products

The main objective of the Healthy Seas initiative is to remove waste, in particular fishing nets and other marine litter, from the seas for the purpose of recycling these into textile products.

As part of the Healthy Seas initiative, rescued fishing nets are transformed and regenerated into ECONYL® yarn, a high-quality raw material used to create new products such as socks, swimwear, underwear, carpets, etc.

ECONYL®, under its parent group Aquafil, is one of the key partners in the Healthy Seas Initiative.

The ECONYL® brand was inspired by Giulio Bonazzi, President and CEO of the Aquafil Group, who is personally committed to sustainability and particularly interested in closed-loop manufacturing systems.

Healthy Seas initiative founders

Having invested four years of R&D and nearly €20 million, ECONYL® is now a key commercial driver in Aquafil’s business.

Without relying on a previous proven business case, Aquafil has taken a leap of faith in creating the ECONYL® brand. What they are trying to achieve is pretty remarkable and almost unprecedented in the industry – driven by commitment, passion and creative ideas for sustainability.

In the years 2011 and 2012, ECONYL® has reclaimed close to 16,000 tons of pre- and post-consumer waste globally and has produced 12,000 tons of recycled nylon6 polyamide fibre. They expect they will have produced 15,000 tons of ECONYL® by the end of 2013.

For every 10,000 tons of ECONYL® yarn, the Healthy Seas initiative will have eliminated 11,000 tons of waste, saved 70,000 barrels of oil and avoided 41,000 tons of CO2 emissions.

SOURCE visited the ECONYL® factory

SOURCE Intelligence Editor-in-Chief, Sarah Ditty, recently went to Slovenia to see the Healthy Seas initiative in action.

Sarah Ditty with other journalists from the UK visiting the Healthy Seas initiative

The visit started with a tour of Fonda Fish Farm, a project partner that works with Healthy Seas to rescue fishing nets off the coast of the Gulf of Piran in the Adriatic Sea.

The Fonda Fish Farm is one of the most sustainable fisheries in the world, producing the world’s most expensive sea bass in excellent, conservation-minded conditions.

They sent a diver down the seabed to demonstrate how fishing nets are dragged up from the ocean. These fishing nets are collected in different areas around the world and then cleaned, dried, collected and sent to the ECONYL® waste collection and treatment centre, based in Ajdovščina, Slovenia.

Fishing net collection systems, much like the one happening at Fonda Fish Farm, are already creating jobs in local communities, many of who are living on the edges of poverty. The Zoological Society London (ZSL) is partnering with some of these communities in the Philippines connecting them with the Healthy Seas initiative to collect waste fishing nets from the Pacific.

At the pre-treatment facilities, the fishing nets are sorted, cut off from the attached ropes and shredded into pieces small enough to be put into the ECONYL® process.

From the treatment centre, the shredded fishing nets are forwarded to the nearby regeneration plant located in Ljubljana.

Here, the fishing nets are dumped into giant chemical reactors that break down the components of the fishing net material to regenerate the nylon6 polyamide through a process of de/re-polymerisation.

About 80% of the total fishing net material make-up is capable of depolymerisation. The remaining 20% is waste, mainly dyestuffs, which are typically incinerated offsite.

The regenerated nylon6 is exactly the same chemical make-up, performance and quality of virgin nylon material. There’s no degradation, no matter how many times the material is de/re-polymerised.

Once the de/re-polymerisation happens, the nylon6 is then processed into either BCF yarn (carpet flooring yarn) or NTF yarn (textile yarn).

The ECONYL® factory operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week – the process is mainly computerised with high-tech robotics doing quite a lot of the logistics. Overall, it’s a very efficient (rather awe-inspiring) process with little impact on the environment and without compromising on quality.

These yarns are sold to suppliers like Italian fabric manufacturer Carvico, who use the yarns to create fashion textiles. Carvico offers this in its Acqua range, which is ideal for swimwear and sports gear.

Having said that, it should be noted that if fabric suppliers choose to blend the ECONYL® fibre with more than 10% of another fibre – a common one is Elastane – then the resulting fabric is unable to be regenerated through the ECONYL® process again.

Fabric suppliers could broadly do with more education around designing for end of life.

ECONYL® is great for swimwear and clothing used in sport

Koru is a Florida-based brand producing beautiful swimwear made with ECONYL® nylon yarn. They joined the Healthy Seas initiative through the brand’s commitment to “1% for the Planet” – an alliance of over 1,200 member companies in 48 countries that give1% of revenues to environmental causes.

London-based luxury swimwear brand Auria, designed by Diana Auria Harris, is also using ECONYL® fibre to create her trendy, digitally printed swimming costumes, already featured at London Fashion Week and stocked by the likes of ASOS and Yoox.

Dutch brand Starsock is one of the founders of the Healthy Seas initiative and is using ECONYL® nylon yarn in their socks, which supply big name brands like New Balance, Lotto and Dakar and whose own label is stocked widely across many leading European retailers.

Surf wear brands – a natural partner?

But why aren’t more surfing apparel brands using ECONYL® yet? It seems like a natural partnership. Surfers more so than most other people are deeply connected to the ocean, both physically and philosophically.

This is especially relevant in light of recent industry realisation that quite a few of the big names in surf wear are failing to keep up with their changing consumer demands. Companies like Billabong, Quicksilver and Pacific Sunwear have been marking big losses as of late, losing out market share to a host of smaller, more sophisticated brands.

Perhaps the environmental angle could help save the demise of these big surfing apparel companies from becoming yesterday’s news.

The Healthy Seas initiative exemplifies industry best practice

The Healthy Seas initiative is driving innovation by taking a systemic problem and not just helping to solve it but creating a solution – something that is both productive and positive.

It’s promising to the future of business (not just for the textiles sector but for all business) that three organisations – each with very different backgrounds – decided to join forces to tackle the problem of marine litter. Their aim being not just to clean up the waste, but also to involve the NGO and business communities and consumers in the process.

We certainly hope to see this project grow and that more alliances like Healthy Seas will start to tackle other pressing problems plaguing the fashion and textiles sector.

For more information about the Healthy Seas initiative and how to get involved, visit – http://healthyseas.org

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