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Let’s Talk About Sustainable Swimwear

Is my swimsuit sustainable?

Spring kicks off the search for two things: a swimsuit that hugs you in all the right places, and activewear that is just cute enough to motivate us to go to the gym and help the swimsuit do its job. But if you’ve paid attention to the spate of articles on the dangers of synthetic fabrics, you know that to splurge often and thoughtlessly on these stretchy products is to do harm to the environment.

 

How? Well, swim and workout wear are predominantly made of man-made fabrics like nylon, spandex, and polyester (or some combination of the three) because of its elasticity, durability, and quick-drying qualities. Purely in terms of performance, the invention of these fabrics was revolutionary when they first came to market beginning in the 1930s (all were invented by American chemical company, Dupont). Unfortunately, these favorable qualities are due to the fact that the fabrics are made of fibers spun from petrochemicals, aka plastic, making them the worst kind of triple threat: energy intensive to produce, unable to biodegrade, and responsible for shedding millions of toxic plastic microfibers into our waterways and air.

 

So, what to do when faced with the shopping conundrum: How do I look good and do good with my bikini? Well, your first question must always be, “Do I really need it?” Is your swimsuit from last year (or five years ago) really falling apart, or are you nervous about swimsuit season and looking for a confidence boost delivered via your credit card? (For a body confidence boost look here, and here.) These plastic fabrics were designed for durability, so first give your swimsuit another try and be honest (and kind) with yourself about whether it can survive another season of sea salt and sun. If, however, it really is time for a new swimsuit, one option to consider is one made of the fabric, ECONYL.

 

What is ECONYL?

Before we were concerned with the omnipresence of microfibers in our waterways, we were worried about a different type of plastic pollution causing harm to marine life, fishing nets. Thought we were exaggerating when we said nylon was durable? Guess what commercial fishing nets are made from: nylon. These nylon fishing nets are strong, do not biodegrade, and are frequently lost accidentally or intentionally cut loose from fishing boats and set adrift in the ocean to wreak havoc on marine life. According to the World Animal Protection, “In just one deepwater fishery in the north-east Atlantic some 25,000 nets, totaling around 1,250 km in length, were recorded lost or discarded annually. Each net is a floating death trap. For example, when 870 ghost nets were recovered in Washington State in the US, they contained more than 32,000 marine animals.”

 

However, an Italian company has found a way to convert this deadly waste into something valuable, a new nylon yarn called ECONYL that can be made into, amongst other things, swimwear. Aquafil, the owner and inventor of ECONYL, spent years and millions of dollars (according to Aquafil, approximately 25 million euros) developing the supply chain and chemical process that could break down waste like fishing nets, carpet, and industrialized plastic, and recycle it into “regenerated nylon.” The end result is a nylon yarn of the same quality and durability as nylon made from virgin materials (crude oil) with up to a 40 percent decrease in carbon emissions.

 

Why does it matter?

Moving away from extracting petroleum as a source for clothing, committing to a more circular economy, and investing in recycling technology are commendable and crucial steps towards lowering fashion’s carbon emissions. We hope to see more actions like this industry wide (friendly reminder: according to the 2018 IPCC report we need to get global greenhouse gas emissions to ZERO by 2050 to avoid ecocide). Of course, this innovative fabric does not address the problem of microfiber shedding, and as eco-activists have rightly pointed out, plastic recycling technology best supports the mission of sustainability only if the long-term goal is to phase out, or dramatically reduce, the production of virgin plastic materials.

 

So, if you do decide to purchase a new bathing suit this summer, ECONYL is a worthwhile fabric to look for. It is used by designers from Mara Hoffman to Stella McCartney to Speedo, and will be a long-lasting addition to your summer wardrobe. But, as you soak in the sun in your new (mostly) sustainably made ECONYL swimsuit, make sure to pack your reusable water bottles, wrap your lunch in beeswax wrap, and read a good book about lobbying for change because that swimsuit is just the beginning of the progress we need to see.

Cover Photo: Heather Hazzan

Words: Laura Jones

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