Due to the technical challenges that are common to nylon recycling, there are relatively few recycling facilities that accept nylon. But there are recyclers who have the specialized equipment and expertise to create post-consumer and/or post-industrial plastics from used nylon, and they compete against one another to obtain it.
Nylon is an extraordinary invention that’s probably the world’s most versatile synthetic substance. Essentially a simple plastic made from coal, water, and air; it’s the main constituent in a myriad of household, consumer, industrial, agricultural, and military products.
Perhaps inevitably, the ubiquity of nylon in our environment has its downside. While not an in-your-face candidate for hazardous material disposal, as a polymer, nylon doesn’t break down easily. So it’s there to stay when it finds its way into our landfills and waterways.
Compounding the problem, nylon recycling is difficult. Consider:
Metal, glass, and other “recyclables” must be melted at high temperatures to be rendered into a reusable form. This provides the collateral benefit of incidentally purging any contaminants they might contain, such as microbes, bacteria, and non-recyclable materials.
Conversely, nylon cannot tolerate high heat, and it melts at a much lower temperature. This allows contaminants—organic or otherwise—to remain alive or otherwise unscathed. For this reason, nylon needs to be thoroughly cleaned before it can have a second life as a raw material.
Until recently, this has made the cost of nylon recycling prohibitive relative to simply sourcing it new, or in certain applications, using low-cost polyethylene terephthalate (PET) in place of nylon recycling altogether. But this is rapidly changing.
The “Circular Economy” Model
Over the last decade, advanced technologies have emerged for developing “post-consumer content” and “post-industrial content” out of materials that, like nylon, are challenging to recycle. (Quite confusingly, you might see the terms “pre-consumer content” and “pre-industrial content” to denote the same things.)
Driving these technologies is the popularity of the “circular economy” model, especially among millennial consumers who are now America’s largest and most important consumer psychographic. Consider:
In contrast to the traditional paradigm of “make-use-dispose,” a circular economy involves using resources for as long as possible to get maximum value from each, and then recycling their constituent materials to regenerate products.
Perhaps most famously, one company that is doing this is California-based Patagonia, which currently has more than 50 products containing recycled nylon, recalling the company’s successful 15-year effort to perfect the technology for recycling polyester.
Other examples include Italian carpet manufacturer Aquafil, which has developed a machine that can turn most kinds of carpet nylons into new threads. The company then sells them to outerwear and swimsuit manufacturers—Speedo® among them.
Los Angeles based Kickstarter pays Chilean fishermen to collect old nylon fishing nets, which are then recycled into skateboards and sunglasses.
Nylon Recycling Specialists
In sum, new technologies are providing a robust market for used nylon. And while there are relatively few recycling facilities that accept nylon, those that do compete against each other for the material. This is good for the environment, as it keeps discarded nylon out of our landfills and waterways. And it’s good for the economy, as the creation of post-consumer and post-industrial plastics creates jobs in and of itself; and the availability of recycled plastics has obvious economic benefits to builders, manufacturers, and their ultimate end-users.