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Is Econyl® one gateway to a clean future for rugs and carpets?

As we begin dreaming up new ways to lessen our impact on the environment, circular thinking in design starts to impact interior products. Denna Jones looks at the prospects of the manmade fibre Econyl® and how a project between Italian brand Econyl® and Nepalese firm Sarawagi could open up new ideas for rugs.

Burn or bury. These are the stark end of life choices for most synthetic-fibre rugs and carpets. Luxury, vintage, and antique rugs woven from natural materials are less likely to meet either fate, but the same is not true for petroleum-based Nylon 6 rugs and carpet. Economic and logistic constraints inhibit Nylon 6 recycling, but there is a promising solution to burn, bury or downcycle. Econyl® is a regenerated nylon fibre made from Nylon 6 waste using a closed-loop production system. The first hand-knotted rug made from pure Econyl® debuted at Domotex Hannover in January 2020.

Isobel Morris’ rug design

Isobel Morris’ rug design

Burn and bury are the legacy of entrenched linear manufacturing also known as cradle-to-grave. Solution seeking began in the 1990s when architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart founded the circular (closed loop) Cradle to Cradle (C2C) environmental design approach modelled on an ‘abundant’ and ‘wastefree’ Mother Nature. Earth’s natural inhabitants are composed of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen—inherently programmed to decompose and recycle—but human-made products are often complex synthetic structures difficult to deconstruct and recycle. C2C is also known as the ‘circular bio economy’ where waste such as nylon rugs becomes ‘feedstock’ to be endlessly remade without quality loss. Econyl® is structurally identical to its source material, created with a process that enables endless deconstruction and recycling without degradation.

Sarawagi Rugs—a family-owned awardwinning luxury hand-knotted rug company based in Nepal—debuted its hand-knotted Econyl® rug at Domotex in January. A self-described ‘ecoholique’, Shally Sarawagi collaborated on the rug with Aquafil and Michael Christie, who was invited by Aquafil to its Econyl® factory in 2018. Christie enthused about the fibre to Sarawagi (she was already familiar with it), and recommended British designer Isobel Morris for the inaugural rug design. ‘We want to create a buzz for Econyl®,’ says Sarawagi, ‘and show rug buyers it’s a beautiful, aesthetically vibrant product.’ Econyl® properties include its ability to take ‘abrash dyes like a dream!’

The dyed Econyl® yarn

The dyed Econyl® yarn

Sarawagi’s awareness of environmental issues encompasses all things fibre-related. (She won’t, for example, buy clothes from leading international fast-fashion retailers.) The global rug industry’s widespread acceptance of the status-quo such as dye run-off, animal welfare, and whether natural fibres should remain the luxury option, are issues Sarawagi wants to discuss. ‘We avoid talking about the environment and ethical issues,’ she says referring to those in the industry, ‘but for the sake of people, communities, and the environment we have to discuss these issues now.’

The majority of manufactured carpet is made from petroleum-based Nylon 6. To divert end of life Nylon 6 carpet from burn or bury, Italian company Aquafil developed a thermal depolymerisation process in 2011 which reverts Nylon 6 carpets, textile mill waste, and discarded fishing nets (the ‘feedstock’) to the original monomer. The outcome is spun as Econyl® yarns. The process can be repeated infinitely to be ‘as good as new’. Econyl® is produced in two commercial grades: sportswear yarn and BCF (Bulk Continuous Fibre) yarn for carpets. Companies using Econyl® include Speedo swimwear, and fashion houses Stella McCartney and Prada

The collaborative Econyl®, Sarawagi and Isobel Morris rug design in production in Nepal

The collaborative Econyl®, Sarawagi and Isobel Morris rug design in production in Nepal

In terms of recycling, the chief problem with commercial carpets and many rugs is a material mix that can’t be separated. Even a 50/50 wool and Econyl® carpet produced in Spain is destined for landfill at end of life says Martina Santoni of Aquafil, because ‘we can separate backing from face fibres, but we can’t separate interwoven fibres’. Poly-material textile products are a recycling challenge across industries. Aquafil initially accepted swimwear products from Speedo to recycle, but, ‘We’re not doing that anymore,’ says Santoni, ‘because the fabric needs to be a minimum 90% Nylon 6, and too many were below [that threshold].’

Are Nylon 6 and Econyl® the gateway to a clean future for rugs and carpets? The circular bio economy improves on linear manufacturing, but it still uses earth’s finite resources. Thermal depolymerisation (chemical recycling) is problematic, and Aquafil’s own EPD (Environmental Product Declaration) for Econyl® reports its fossil-fuel powered factory has only recently lowered its coal reliance from 90% to 60%. Aquafil are aware of environmental challenges and continue to refine their processes. Their product and quest to create sustainable climate change solutions should be supported.

Asked how we can save the planet environmentalist Sir David Attenborough voiced a heartfelt plea, ‘don’t waste’, to which we should add ‘keep things simple’. Mother Nature knows how to recycle her waste infinitely and efficiently while ‘doing no harm’. Humanity is finally learning how too.

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