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Closing the Carpet Loop

Aquafil puts a dent in global waste by recycling nylon from carpets, clothing and fishing nets

The shores of tourist resort Lake Garda may seem like an unlikely place to make nylon. But it’s here that an Italian company, Aquafil, discovered a way to take discarded carpeting, clothing and fishing nets and turn them into a recycled nylon fiber called EcoNyl. Now companies including Adidas, Speedo and Desso are using the fiber to make sportswear, swimwear and carpets, reducing the quantity of garbage in landfills and the sea.

The U.S. EPA estimates that textile waste makes up nearly 5 percent of all landfill space. As for the seas, an estimated 8 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean each year, according to the journal Science. About one-tenth of that comes from discarded nylon fishing nets.

Nylon, a synthetic fiber made from polymers, doesn’t readily break down. But it’s difficult and expensive to recycle, so manufacturers tend to use nylon yarn made from fossil raw material. Aquafil has developed an innovative process it calls the EcoNyl Regeneration System, shipping nylon waste or materials that have reached the end of their product life (e.g. carpet fluff) to its plant in Slovenia. Here the waste is treated, melted, then run through a spinneret into what Aquafil engineer Michele Cecchetto refers to as “spaghetti,” before being spun into a high-quality, high-performance nylon fiber that can be endlessly recycled.

The company says its process also reduces CO² emissions, and that 70 barrels of oil are saved for every 10,000 tons of regenerated Caprolactam (the building block of Nylon 6) produced.

Aquafil CEO Giulio Bonazzi’s sustainability epiphany happened in Maui in 1998, at a week-long event organized by U.S. carpet tile giant Interface, Aquafil’s biggest client. Interface founder Ray Anderson gathered his 800 employees and top suppliers together for a big announcement: by 2020 his company would make all of its products from recycled materials. Aquafil is Europe’s largest maker of carpet yarns, now employing more than 2,700 people and with €499 million in turnover last year. But at that gathering, it was one of Interface’s smaller suppliers, and Bonazzi recalls that he was seated in the back row behind giants like Dupont, Allied, BASF and Monsanto.

“Everyone said ‘This guy is crazy,’ and a lot of people just went to play golf,” said Bonazzi from his office overlooking the mountains. “But I thought about it and realized he was right. And I went to every single one of the seminars for the whole week and decided that sustainability could be a competitive advantage for my company.”

In 2007, Bonazzi was ready to launch an early version of EcoNyl using factory waste. Aquafil spent €25 million on the project over the next four years, and in 2011 was ready to roll out EcoNyl as a product line. The project was partially funded by the European Union and the Italian province of Trent, as well as by a €30 million private equity investment, Bonazzi said. Now EcoNyl has 70 licenses worldwide, and 30 percent of Aquafil’s yarns come from recycled fiber.

Aquafil faces three main challenges as it moves towards its goal of using 100 percent recycled nylon for the 130,000 tons of fiber it produces each year. The first is a lack of technology on the marketplace; Aquafil has to invent the machinery it uses. Then there’s cost—a pair of men’s swimming trunks made from EcoNyl for surfing champion Kelly Slater’s Outerknown line carries a hefty price tag of US$95. Finally, bureaucracy can be an obstacle, since European and international rules governing waste disposal and shipment are very complex.

Undaunted, the company is challenging clothing manufacturers to make their supply chains more sustainable. And it seems to be working. After partnering with Speedo USA to turn leftover fabric scraps into raw EcoNyl and, eventually, new swimsuits, Aquafil has signed a partnership with Levi Strauss & Co to create menswear incorporating EcoNyl. The next pair of jeans you buy just might be made from ocean debris.

By Jennifer Clark for Sparknews

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