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Nylon is everywhere. Since its invention in 1935, this material has become a gift and a bane for our consumerist society. It is incredibly versatile, and we use it for almost everything on this planet, from toothbrushes and clothing to heavy equipment and machinery. There are, however, legitimate concerns about its long term impact on the earth.
What Is Nylon Made Out Of?
Nylon is a synthetic polymer developed by Wallace Carothers, an organic chemist who was researching the commercial applications of polymer molecules. In nature, polymers are important molecules because they play a role as building blocks and affect life processes.
Carothers and his team found out that when they mixed the chemicals hexamethylene diamine, amine, and adipic acid, it formed a substance that produced strands. This material was strong, lightweight, and durable. It was also elastic enough to be used as fabric.
Carothers then used a method called cold drawing to turn the strands into plastic threads. When he studied it further, he found out that the molecular structure resembled that of natural silk. So you can imagine how the American chemical company, DuPont, felt when they became aware of this discovery. The commercial possibilities were endless.
The term nylon refers to an entire family of synthetic polymers produced using carbon-based sources like coal and petroleum. When combined with various additives, nylon can exhibit a variety of chemical properties. It is one reason why this wonder-plastic is so versatile and useful.
It can be made into fabric or fishnets, molded into equipment parts, and used for food packaging. It can even be a substitute for lead, which is very important in the manufacture of x-ray equipment.
There are two types of nylon commonly produced today.
Nylon 6 has one monomer with six carbon atoms and is considered a fiber used for textiles and objects such as ropes, seat belts, and parachutes.
Nylon 6/6 has two monomers with six carbon atoms each and is stiffer and usually more durable than its counterpart, making it perfect for industry-related applications. It is more robust and able to replace the production of machine parts ordinarily made from metals. Screws, gears, cable ties, and clamps; all of these use nylon 6/6.
Is Nylon Better Than Plastic?
What we consumers refer to as plastic is sort of a misnomer. Among scientists, the term plastic is a catch-all phrase to designate an entire family of synthetic materials. The defining property of this family is that all these substances are malleable and moldable. That’s why nylon is part of this family, along with Polyethylene (PE).
PE is the material used to make plastic bottles, grocery bags, and loads of other plastics that we likely use some form of every day. It’s relatively inexpensive and easy to produce; that’s why it’s used for most of the world’s packaging requirements.
So between nylon and polyethylene, which is better?
Nylon has some significant advantages to polyethylene plastic when it comes to its commercial capabilities. It is much more durable and resilient, has a higher tolerance for extreme temperatures, and is resistant to chemical abrasion.
The automotive industry requires all of these qualities when using nylon in building vehicle componentry and spare parts.
Nylon is also more versatile. When combined with specific additives, it can resemble fabric. Pure nylon fabric has its disadvantages, but the garment industry realized this. Pioneers in the field began combining nylon with other natural fibers to create more comfortable and durable clothing.
Is Nylon Bad For The Environment?
Unfortunately, because it is synthetic, it is not completely biodegradable and can lead to microplastics. And this is not only bad but has horrific effects on our ecosystems.
Nylon fabric is a contributor to the microplastic pollution that’s affecting our oceans. Along with polyester and other synthetic fibers, nylon textiles tend to leach out microfibers during washing, especially when washed.
These microplastic fibers find their way into our oceans, where plankton can ingest them. That is the start of a vicious and dangerous cycle for our marine ecosystems. Plankton gets eaten by larger organisms, then larger and larger, finally making it into the bellies of everything that we know, love, and sometimes eat. These microplastics move up the food chain until they eventually find their way back into our bodies, leaving dangerous toxins.
The average person is going to consume approximately 50,000 pieces of microplastic this year.
While there are no long term health studies to measure the impact of these microplastics in our system, it’s not farfetched to assume that there will be long-term, adverse side effects that impact our health.
After all, plastic production requires the use of additives, and most of these additives are toxic. Imagine eating plastic soup like much of our marine life does.
Fortunately, nobody plans on feeding you raw plastic; however, a 5mm version of that is currently floating in the ocean and on its way to your gut.
An example of the toxicity can be understood when examining a chemical that goes by phthalate.
Phthalates are additives in many plastics that make it more durable, flexible, and transparent. Phthalate exposure, however, has been linked to various neurodevelopmental and reproductive disorders.
These chemicals are continually leaching into their surroundings, including our bodies, if we are not careful.
Another reason why it is terrible for the environment is because of NO or nitrous oxide.
The commercial compound, also known as Nylon 6/6, and is produced using petrochemicals. It requires an enormous amount of energy to heat the carbon compounds enabling the polymerization process. Further along, it will produce nitrous oxide as a by-product.
If you didn’t know, nitrous oxide is a nasty greenhouse gas. We often refer to it as laughing gas, but it’s not a laughing matter.
In comparison, carbon dioxide persists for 300-1,000 years. That is much longer and seemingly a worse thing for our environment, but due to its potency, nitrous oxide destroys the ozone layer more immediately and viciously. The two of these gasses together are a dangerous combination.
Worldwide, 8 billion pounds make its way into our economy every year. And while the production is no longer what it was during its industrial heyday, that incredible volume still contributes to a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions, making it horrible for our planet’s long-term health.
Are Nylon Bristles Biodegradable?
One of the most popular uses for nylon in our greenwashed economy is toothbrushes. Toothbrushes were a natural fit for its versatility. DuPont tested the viability of the toothbrush industry long before it decided to focus on the women’s stocking market.
Long before plastics, toothbrushes were made out of boar bristles and bone china. Mainly toothbrushes were an exclusive luxury for the well-to-do because of the scarcity of material and hand-made quality. Only 1 out of 4 Americans owned a toothbrush during that time.
When nylon production became commercially viable, toothbrush design experienced a radical shift.
The first nylon thread toothbrush was developed in 1938 by the company Dr. West. They marketed the brushes as more durable and waterproof than natural bristle brushes.
This idea was a smashing success and widely adopted. From then on, toothbrush design and nylon became entwined.
While oral hygiene benefited greatly through this revolution, the environment did not. Nylon bristles are synthetic and not biodegradable, therefore making toothbrushes a leading contributor to widespread plastic pollution.
National Geographic painted an ugly picture of this increased reliance on plastic brushes. Following the American Dental Association’s recommendation of changing your toothbrush every three months, the United States alone will have used over one billion toothbrushes annually. That’s a lot of plastic leaching its micro-particles into our environment.
Earth-friendly companies are trying to address this dilemma by developing biodegradable toothbrushes.
The most common example is the bamboo toothbrush concept. These are biobased toothbrushes generally made from bamboo and castor bean oil bristles.
These bio-bristles use Nylon-11, a polymer that obtained from an organic compound called 11-aminoundecanoic acid. Say that five times fast.
This polymer is a bioplastic, designed using renewable biomass sources like castor oil, in this case. Polylactic acid (PLA) is another common bioplastic.
While all bioplastics are compostable given specific, industrial environments, and sometimes compostable from home, not all are biodegradable. It also depends on how you define biodegradability.
Biodegradable plastic is plastic that will degrade through the action of naturally occurring microorganisms, such as bacteria, fungi etc. over a period of time.
The problem with this definition is that it doesn’t define a length of time for decomposition, nor does it specify whether it can leave behind toxic residues, which many bioplastics do.
Given that definition, its biodegradability is sketchy. While bioplastics are arguably better for our environment than virgin plastic, the technology is less clean than we may be lead to believe.
Is Nylon Recycled?
Some nylon is recycled, some are not.
Virgin nylon refers to the material produced using standard commercial processes. These processes are usually energy-intensive and emit toxic by-products.
Recycled nylon, meanwhile, is a practical way of using less energy, fossil fuels, and water resources. It is recycled post-consumer, nylon waste, and reusing it gives it a second life.
This practice also ensures that there is less of it ending up in our landfills and oceans. Less, in this case, is always less. It will always be best for our environment if we can reduce the production of anything new.
As the number of eco-conscious consumers increases, American brands turn to recycled nylon as a material for many things, including outerwear.
Fishnets are a primary source for recycled nylon. Worldwide, abandoned plastic fishing nets, otherwise known as ghost nets, threaten marine wildlife. Recycling them helps cut down the chances of marine animals getting entangled in nets and dying from suffocation or starvation.
The leading issue with recycling nylon, however, is its cost. While reclaiming this material is an ideal and eco-friendly solution for reducing plastic pollution, the current barrier to entry is high. For instance, abandoned fishing nets, fabric scraps, carpet flooring, and industrial plastic from landfills and oceans require sorting, cleaning, and purifying before they are viable enough to be regenerated into a new form of nylon.
While there may be challenges in making nylon-recycling commercially viable for the masses, there are brands taking action today and aim for a higher standard.
If you plan on recycling nylon on your own, some companies will take it. Shaw Floors accepts used nylon carpeting nationwide, and 1800Recycling may help you find a local resource.
Companies like Patagonia, Timbuk2, and No Nonsense have nylon recycling built into their products’ life cycle.
If you can’t find a company specializing in recycling nylon, repurpose it for other uses or donate it!
Cut down on your plastic footprint by purchasing used products or new products made from recycled nylon. More companies than ever produce products that are sustainable and better for our environment, giving you no excuse not to make the switch. Your dollars are votes, don’t forget that.
What Did We Learn?
Nylon is a flexible synthetic polymer with many uses. The two main types of nylon are Nylon 6 and Nylon 6/6. Just about everything today is made out of or can be made out of it.
While it is superior to virgin plastics in many ways, being more versatile and durable, it is still plastic and not the best resource for long-term change.
Nylon is sort of biodegradable, depending on your definition. In some cases, nylon can take excessive amounts of time to decompose and, at the same time, leave behind toxic residues that are harmful to the environment.
Buy products made from recycled nylon whenever possible and buy from companies that have a sound recycling cycle built into your purchase.
Even better, reuse what you have and get creative before throwing anything away. Try turning it into something new!
While we are living through the age of plastic, our lifestyle choices are out own. The best thing to know is that we live in a world where some people care a lot and are willing to do something about it. Don’t count on others, however, to change the world. It is up to all of us to live sustainably and have less impact on our environment.