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Saving the oceans one net at a time–the ECONYL by Aquafil mission before a carpet is designed

by Eileen McMorrow

The plight of the poor fisherman’s village resonates with humankind around the world. The contrast between economies driven by high-technology and those driven by aquaculture—is heightened when we comprehend the deteriorating conditions of the oceans, largely due to industrial pollution. Recognizing its position and potential for impact, industry sometimes takes initiatives that improve the conditions of the land, air, oceans, and the livelihood of the fishing village inhabitants.

Urban Retreat from Interface is crafted from ECONYL.

For the past 15 years, the U.S. commercial carpet industry has been modifying scores of manufacturing and distribution practices to reduce its environmental footprint. Before specifying, facilities managers and interior designers ask about the recyclability of floorcoverings, how they are manufactured, and the type and source of the fiber that results in beautifully crafted, durable and colorful or subtly toned carpets. The best spec goes beyond the surface.

One company striving to make as much fiber as possible out of post-consumer waste is Aquafil S.p.A.. ECONYL®, a registered trademark of Aquafil S.p.A., represents a procurement and regeneration system—where all aspects of the fiber are re-used and recycled. ECONYL begins as fish nets harvested from the oceans and other former carpets from which Nylon 6 has been reclaimed.

The ECONYL Regeneration System is the process of turning waste into regenerated Nylon 6 ECONYL yarn. The product is then sold to Aquafil customers worldwide to create end products made from Nylon 6 including carpet, swimwear, sportswear, underwear, and hosiery. The ECONYL Regeneration System is located at Aquafil’s Julon plant in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

The Healthy Seas initiative, of which Aquafil was a founding member, works with volunteer divers across Europe and along the coast of California as they dive to recover ghost gear from shipwrecks. This includes fishing nets that have a copper anti-growth coating that is applied to the nets before they are used to prevent marine life from clogging the nets. “At the collection point, the cleaning process begins, and then they are bundled for shipping to our advanced cleaning facility in Slovenia ,” explains Franco Rossi, president of Aquafil USA. “The copper coating has to be removed before they can be recycled.”

Net Effect Pacific & Atlantic from Interface captures the story of ocean net harvesting.

Facilities managers and interior designers caught a glimpse of this process when carpet manufacturer Interface released its Net Effect Carpet Collection at NeoCon 2013. Its compelling video demonstrated villagers harvesting nets from the ocean and engaging in the sorting, cleaning, drying, and net-folding process, as part of the Interface Net-Works program. Its message that the oceans are bearing the next generation of carpet for offices in the American workplace was embraced.

The regeneration story was already well-established when the Net Effect collection launched. The journey of the waste has been promoted and embraced since ECONYL’s inception in 2011.

A shared vision of the future

The fiber story of Interface’s Net Effect has a common thread that dates back between the two companies. Ray Anderson, the late founder of Interface, and Giulio Bonazzi, President and CEO of Aquafil S.p.A, shared a vision and passion for sustainability. After hearing Anderson speak at a conference in Hawaii in 1994, Bonazzi became inspired to change manufacturing processes in order to better the environment, protect the world’s natural resources, and provide more sustainable products. The ECONYL Regeneration System was conceptualized and developed completely within the Aquafil Group. The two had a vision to change the ingredients and processes of manufacturing to enable future generations to enjoy the world’s natural environment without depleting the limited natural resources.

Depolymerization is the staple process and the heart of the ECONYL Regeneration System. It is unique to the Julon plant in Ljubljana, Slovenia. The plant launched in 2011 after four years of research and development and a 20 million euro investment, according to Abby Dayton, brand communications coordinator, Aquafil USA.

During depolymerization, Nylon 6 is extracted from waste to be regenerated back into caprolactam, the raw material used in the manufacture of Nylon 6 polymers. “Nylon 6 is made from one monomer only—caprolactam. We unzip or unchain it, then we make it back into Nylon 6, ,” says Rossi. “A single molecule makes it all.” Yarn manufacturing and finishing takes place at Aquafil facilities throughout the world, but the depolymerization step is unique to the Julon plant.

As a fiber generator, Aquafil finds itself in competition with other aspects of fiber producing. Carpeting is also made from plastics and polyester, but those carpets have to be recycled back into the plastics industries and cannot become carpet fiber again. These yellow spools of ECONYL fiber are ready to be made into new carpets.

Aquafil USA manufactures BCF yarn for the residential, commercial, and automotive carpet industries. ECONYL is only one of the products it manufactures and sells in the U.S.

Nets are only 30 to 40 percent of the waste collected. “It is our way of giving back to the communities where we operate by creating jobs and incomes for families who would otherwise be far worse off,” says Dayton. “And it is way to protect the environment. By recovering the nets and carpet fluff from the source, we are able to ensure the waste doesn’t end up in landfills, incinerators or the ocean. By going directly to the source, we are eliminating the chance of the local fishermen dumping their gear at sea.”

“Aquafil has pioneered Nylon 6 recycling technology and takes Nylon 6 from lots of different sources,” says Chip DeGrace, executive creative director for Interface, Inc. “We are able to turn that into yarn that ends up in Interface products. More fishing nets from all over the world are feeding into this process.”

About half of Interface’s U.S. production uses 100% recycled content Type 6 Nylon from Aquafil, according to John R. Wells, president and CEO of Interface Americas. Besides Net Effect, it is found in these popular lines: Urban Retreat, Human Nature, Cubic, and Alliteration. “Closed-loop manufacturing is about trying to make a product without waste,” says Miriam Turner, AVP Co-Innovation for Interface. “We are trying to turn it into a circle where whatever you take out of the ground to make a product needs to go back into making another product and not making waste.”

Interface’s program for the reclamation of the fishing nets, Net-Works, contributes to cleaning oceans and beaches while also creating financial opportunities. On one level, Net-Works inclusive model is the kind of advance that our customers expect,” says Peter Greene, vice president, Marketing, Interface. “The social engagement piece and the inclusion of customers, suppliers, and manufacturers makes everyone a stakeholder. And it begins with the people in the fishing villages who get to be in the economic cycle.”

The second stream that generates ECONYL are existing Nylon 6 carpets. The carpet fiber is separated from the backing by a shearing process in Cartersville, Georgia. “There is never enough carpet available for recycling to meet the demand for Nylon 6 for new carpets—and that is where the importance of Aquafil’s direct involvement in carpet recycling is paramount,” declares Rossi. Aquafil is engaged in a process to keep the industry of Nylon 6 recovery organized.

Why it matters, matters

Facility managers who have certifications such as IFMA’s Certified Facility Manager, Facility Management Professional, or Sustainable FM—are expected to have thorough knowledge of the environmental and worker health and safety impacts of the products they specify. FMs and designers who qualify for the LEED AP certification use this knowledge, too.

When Aquafil engages in carpet shearing, the recovered fiber goes back into the process of generating new ECONYL fiber, such as the red spools shown here. Aquafil buys from carpet collectors and recyclers to get as much Nylon 6 into the Cartersville, Georgia, plant for processing. Aquafil USA President Franco Rossi indicates the plant expansion is ready to take on more carpet.

Because only Nylon 6 can be recycled continuously into nylon fiber, its supply must be continually sourced. The facilities management and interior design professionals are exposed to significant messaging about carpet recycling from the mills and the fiber suppliers, and Aquafil is seeking to educate all specifiers about the differences.

“Aquafil’s story takes a waste stream out of the environment,” says Terry Mowers, vice president, Chief Creative Officer, Tandus Centiva. “We like to support it. There is still not a lot of yarn coming from recycled carpet in North America.” Tandus Centiva, a commercial carpet mill and flooring manufacturer, sees the ultimate good of fiber recycling would be fiber to fiber, but it is not happening yet.

The other nylon known to the industry is Nylon 6,6—and is a direct competitor of Nylon 6. They have similar characteristics and performance levels, but the difference is what is going to happen once it reaches the end of its product life. Nylon 6 is able to be endlessly regenerated whereas Nylon 6,6 is not. Asks Dayton, ”What are you going to do with your carpet after 20 to 25 years—throw it out or recycle it to be endlessly regenerated?

More education for better specification

Education about fiber is not widely available and designers need it. “Type 6 absorbs color in a saturated fashion,” says Mowers, “that 6,6 does not.” Asked what drives the decisions in a carpet spec, Mowers, an award-winning carpet designer, says it is aesthetics first and foremost, followed by budget/price, and the fact that most clients will not pay more for a greener product.

Thin Lines from Tandus Centiva is made with Aquafil’s Econyl fiber. The fiber is made of 50% post consumer recycled content, derived from fishing nets, fabrics, and fluff from discarded carpet.

“We set out to use Type 6 to react to pressure for the lowest price, and today the prices are low,” says Mowers. “Further, facilities managers and designers know that Nylon is the best-performing over polyester, polypropylene, and even wool wears away.”

Corporate and institutional design decision-makers may not be aware of the differences in fiber. “When they understand the differences in fiber production, they are receptive to the concepts and realize that carpet decisions can be made along the lines of pure performance and cost,” Rossi adds.

“The fiber distinction between branded and unbranded has eroded.” says Interface’s Greene. “Customers expect a warranty on performance. However, Aquafil has distinguished itself with its regeneration process.”

“With ECONYL, it is not a cost proposition,” says Rossi. “We cannot say ECONYL costs less, but it also does not cost more. And it performs just as well as all other fibers in terms of color and performance,” he declares. “If you specify ECONYL fiber in your carpets, you are using a product that is already doing the right thing by not using any resources of the earth,” says Rossi.

He argues the point that other fibers will indicate they are “natural” or “bio-based” but using any biological resource also means a resource occurring naturally in the earth is being removed to create the product for consumption. “Even oil is a “natural” resource, but we all consider it unsustainable in the long run,” Rossi says. Whereas, ECONYL is being manufactured out of discarded nets or carpets with no further depletion of natural resources.

The final word from Aquafil is that Nylon 6 can always be made into a new Nylon product, and Aquafil is committed to working with Nylon 6 only and continuing the cycle of return to raw material.