Plant-based nylon: Now it’s fact, not fantasy

Progress is looking promising in the partnership between biotech firm Geno and sustainable textile company Aquafil, the company behind Econyl, to develop a plant-based version of nylon.

A new plant-based version of nylon could offer a commercial alternative to one of the fashion industry’s most problematic materials. Its developers — biotech firm Geno and textile company Aquafil — have announced the first demonstration production run at scale of plant-based nylon-6, the building block for making nylon.

The news brings a plant-based nylon one step closer to commercialisation, according to the companies behind it. Nylon is considered an environmentally harmful material because it’s made from synthetic polymer derived from fossil fuels. Nylon clothing is also treated with chemicals, bleaching agents and synthetic dyes. Previous “sustainable” nylon alternatives have been made from recycled plastic or plastic-based fibres, also derived from fossil fuels.

The fully plant-based alternative has been co-developed on a pilot scale by biotech company Genomatica (Geno) and Aquafil, the company behind Econyl, regenerated nylon used by Prada, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Burberry and others.

The material is made from 100 per cent plant-based feedstocks, according to the developers, such as sugar cane and industrial corn, which Geno converts to nylon-6 polymer. It has the same chemical structure as its fossil fuel-derived counterpart.

The next step is to transform the polymer into nylon applications including yarn that can be used for textiles. Geno says the material can be biodegradable; whether it is or not will depend on the end manufacturer’s production process.

Long-time collaborators Geno and Aquafil first announced a deal to produce pilot-scale quantities of the nylon alternative in January 2020, signing a deal to scale production further in November 2020. The companies are yet to disclose a timeline for commercial scale production.

“The world needs every possible approach put into action to make supply chains sustainable, and making bio-based nylon is an essential piece of that,” a statement from Aquafil CEO Giulio Bonazzi reads. “Plant-based nylon can perfectly complement our approach to depolymerising nylon products once they reach the end of their useful life. Together, we share a vision to lead the transition to more sustainable materials which has driven our long-term collaboration.”

Nylon has been used commercially in the fashion industry since the 1930s, initially as a cheaper and more durable alternative to silk in stockings. In the luxury sector, nylon has become synonymous with Italian luxury label Prada. Miuccia Prada popularised the use of nylon in the 1980s with a nylon It bag that challenged the dominance of leather for high-end goods. Re-editions of Prada’s nylon bags – made from regenerated nylon yarn Econyl, developed in partnership with Aquafil – have been trending since 2021, considered a favourite among influencers and celebrities. Although Econyl is considered more sustainable than conventional nylon, it is still plastic-based.

In 2021, Geno announced a multi-year partnership and investment from Lululemon to develop bio-based materials for the luxury athleisure brand’s products. In June this year, Geno launched a $120 million venture with Unilever to scale biotechnology alternatives to palm oil and fossil fuels for ingredients in cleaning and personal care products.

Geno has also previously developed a plant-based alternative to butylene glycol (a petroleum derived ingredient found in skincare and haircare) and a plant-based alternative to 1,4-butanediol (also known as BD or BDO), a key fossil fuel-derived ingredient used in a number of products including spandex and footwear. Geno is a member of European consortium Project Effective, a multi-company collaboration (including Sweden’s H&M) to develop more sustainable bio-based fibres and plastics.

“Now, more than ever, global brands are taking action to incorporate sustainable materials into their products,” said Geno CEO Christophe Schilling in a statement. “We’re working to build purposeful, traceable and transparent supply chains, in this case for nylon-6, with the goal to provide more sustainable products that consumers demand and material solutions that can help brands achieve their ESG goals.”

This article is republished from Vogue Business under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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