Where most of us see ocean debris, Giulio Bonazzi, chairman and CEO of Aquafil Group, sees opportunity. This mentality and concern for the health of our oceans have helped unleash innovation in sustainable fashion.

Aquafil is making fibers with 100 percent recycled waste from fisheries and the carpeting sector. And it’s going to good (creative) use — Adidas recently announced an agreement with Aquafil to use their 100 percent regenerated Econyl fiber in the Parley Hero swimwear. A swimsuit made from recycled fishing nets and carpeting fluff might sound unappealing, but the end result is quite striking.

“Econyl yarn is 100 percent regenerated from nylon waste, and it is state-of-the-art because it can be regenerated not just once, but an infinite number of times,” Bonazzi tells Earth911. “While traditional recycling processes can result in degradation, Aquafil’s unique regeneration system returns waste back to its virgin state without any loss in quality. For this reason, designers can use fabric made with Econyl without sacrificing beauty for sustainability.”

Although this is a relatively new material, it has also been used by Kelly Slater’s Outerknown, Levi Strauss & Co. and Gucci. Aquafil also recently teamed up with Stella McCartney, whose Stella Star and Falabella bags use the Econyl yarn.

Econyl Research & Development

Photo: Adidas

The development of Econyl was no small feat, even though Aquafil had been producing Nylon 6 for 40 years. Considerable persistence and clear vision were required to bring this recycled product to the business-to-business market. Although it seems that sourcing waste would be easy, it presented some difficulty.

“It took us five years and around €25 million to develop the Econyl Regeneration System,” Bonazzi says. “One of the most challenging aspects is actually getting the right type of waste because it has to be Nylon 6 waste that is still in good condition. However, now that we have established reverse supply chains with the carpeting sector and fisheries, it’s become much easier.”

Recycling waste is when it’s mixed with other materials is particularly tough. Although Aquafil hasn’t overcome this issue, it has been working on this for years. Solving this problem would open up new supply chains that aren’t possibilities at the moment, expanding the reach of the circular economy.

Challenges in Plastic Recycling

Typically, plastic can only be recycled once or twice. In other words, recycling plastic is really delaying an inevitable ending in a landfill because the quality of the recycled materials is lower each time it is recycled. This severely limits the potential uses of recycled plastics.

One of the attributes that makes Econyl so promising is that it can be recycled repeatedly due to the process that Aquafil uses. “The beating heart of the Econyl Regeneration System is its proprietary depolymerization unit,” Bonazzi says. “This chemical process ‘unzips’ the Nylon 6 molecules and returns them to their original state, called caprolactam. This regenerated caprolactam can then be turned back into new Nylon 6 polymers, which are identical to those made from fossil fuels. This process can be repeated an infinite number of times without any loss in quality.”

The ability to recycle materials an infinite amount of times is the essence of the circular economy, where inputs are recycled over and over instead of being sent to a landfill. Econyl is currently manufactured from 50 percent post-consumer content — which consists of fishing nets and carpet fluff — and 50 percent pre-consumer, or industrial, waste. The ultimate goal is to use 100 post-consumer waste in the production of Econyl, according to Bonazzi.

Greening the Fashion Industry

Photo: Adidas

The fashion industry has been scrutinized in recent years for its growing environmental impact fueled by fast fashion. This phenomenon encourages consumerism as clothing quickly becomes out of style before it has reached the end of its useful life. Applying the concepts of a circular economy highlights the importance of using inputs again and again to make garments.

“Global fiber consumption is expected to reach 96.4 million tons in 2020 — a 30 percent increase since 2010 — and it’s clear that the linear model in which we produce, consume and throw away clothing is no longer sustainable,” Bonazzi says. “In any type of apparel — sportswear or otherwise — it is important to use upcycled or sustainable ingredients whenever possible.”

A swimsuit that can be recycled an infinite number of times and consists of ocean waste? This product is likely to make waves — in a good way.

Feature photo courtesy of Adidas

Read More:
Eco Fashion: How Eco-Friendly Fabrics Are Making a Splash
Adidas Teams with Nonprofit to Turn Plastic Pollution into Shoes
Death in the Water: How Plastic Is Poisoning Our Oceans

By Sarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.