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Aquafil’s Econyl nylon 6 recovery and renewal process is delivering an endless loop in the polymers market.

Lisa McKenna May 15, 2012
Aquafil’s corporate headquarters in Trento, Italy.

For decades the polymer nylon 6 has been used for such varied applications as carpeting, fishing nets and textiles. Trademarked as Perlon in 1952, nylon 6 can be made into fibres that offer high strength, elasticity, lustre and stain resistance.

While the manufacture of nylon 6 from virgin raw materials is energy intensive, it’s also a process that can utilize recycled materials as the raw material feedstock, an endless number of times.

The Aquafil Group, based in Trento, Italy, is a maker of nylon 6 that is doing just that. The company was founded in 1969 by Carlo Bonazzi. Bonazzi and his wife Silvana Radici, had been in the textile business since 1956.

Throughout its history the company has focused on the polymerization and production of nylon 6 fibres for use in three major product areas: nylon carpet fibre, engineering plastics and synthetic apparel.

In 2008, the company embarked on a pivotal point in its history when the fourth major business unit was added, the Energy and Recycling division, devoted to the use of recycled materials in its production of nylon 6 along with a commitment to sustainability and energy efficiency.

Aquafil at a Glance

  • Founded in Arco (Trento), Italy in 1969 by Carlo Bonazzi and Silvana Radici
  • Comprises three business segments: BCF, engineered plastics and nylon textile filament
  • BCF division comprises 54% of the company’s sales
  • Launched the Econyl recycling unit in 2009
  • Achieved €432 million in sales in 2010
  • More than 2,000 employees worldwide
  • Operates 13 facilities in 6 countries
  • Started up Econyl production plant in Slovenia in 2011
  • Recycles 11,000 tons of post-industrial and post-consumer scrap each year
  • Econyl accounts for 10-15% of the total volume of nylon 6 produced by Aquafil

Aquafil chairman and CEO, Giulio Bonazzi, who is the son of its founders, believes the company’s recent investment in recycling renewable sources of nylon 6 is the key to Aquafil’s long-term success. “Either you become sustainable, or you will have to exit from the business,” he says. “This is especially valid for a company which is strongly dependent on raw materials like we are.”
 

A Global Player
Today, Bonazzi says, between 4 and 5 million tons of nylon 6 are produced globally each year. Of that, Aquafil produces about 110,000 tons, or just under 3% of the total amount.

In the case of carpet, which accounts for 54% of the company’s sales, Aquafil supplies nylon 6 for both commercial, automotive and residential carpet applications. Within the textile market Aquafil currently works with one major client, Bonazzi says, that in turn represents numerous brands in the swimwear and intimate apparel markets. The company also is working on a variety of electronic or appliance related applications.

With 2010 sales at a level of ¤432 million, Bonazzi says Aquafil now leads the European market in the production of nylon 6 and holds the No. 2 position globally. The company employs more than 2,000 team members and operates 13 production facilities, five of which are located in Italy, four in Slovenia, and one each in Croatia, the United States, China and Thailand.

In recent years the company has invested in facilities and innovations for recycling post-consumer and post-industrial scrap so that it can serve as a raw material feedstock in the production of nylon 6.

Toward that end the company launched its proprietary Econyl recycling system in October 2009 with the goal of developing an innovative, economically competitive technology for manufacturing nylon 6 from recycled materials.

Aquafil assembled a team of chemical engineers from five different nations to run pilot tests. “We tried to resolve certain problems that in the past made recycling unfeasible,” Bonazzi said.

In 2011 the company began manufacturing Econyl made entirely with recycled post-consumer and post-industrial content, at a ratio of about 30/70 of each. The material is made at a new plant and production line based in Ljubljanja, Slovenia, which started operations in May 2011.

The plant can recycle 11,000 tons of post-industrial and post-consumer scrap per year and has the capacity to process 28 tons of scrap per day. And Bonazzi says Econyl can be used in all three of the business divisions in which the company markets its products.
 

Aquafil CEO Giulio Bonazzi

Sustainability in Demand
The quest for Econyl was borne from customer demand, Bonazzi says. “We have some customers and some applications that are more and more demanding of sustainable products,” he says. He points to the example of the U.S. commercial carpet market, which is increasingly expected to include a certain amount of recycling from post-consumer scrap. “Consequently, knowing the special chemistry of our polymer, we started to develop something that was going in that direction,” he says. “That is what has moved my company and has made us decide to invest in this research and development project, and later on in the industrial realization of this work.”

Bonazzi also points to the example of one of its major clients, carpet manufacturer Interface Global. Its late chairman and founder Ray Anderson is considered a pioneer in the development of a fully sustainable company. “Now there are a lot of other clients in the United States that are working in the production of carpet for commercial applications that are requesting this type of product,” he says.


Upgrading Material
The Econyl recycling system depends upon the use of post-consumer materials containing nylon 6: old carpet, discarded fishing nets and other plastic parts that are sourced at the end of their life cycles. Feedstock from post-industrial scrap also comes from all over the world, and consists largely of chemical waste normally produced during production of nylon 6.

Bonazzi says the Econyl recycling process goes beyond mechanical methods or simply remelting the material. “In our case it is not a mechanical remelting, but it is a depolymerization,” he explains, “so we bring back the material to the previous chemical stage.”

“After a proper and very complex purification stage, we are able to produce a monamer which is like the virgin one.” From there, Bonazzi says, the monamer can be repolymerized just as if it were a virgin material coming from crude oil.

He says the recycling process for nylon 6 actually upgrades the material being recycled. “So from a product that is normally inferior in quality, you can, from the polymer which is contained in this product, produce even more demanding products.”

Challenges have been procuring the right kind of feedstock and then developing the unique recycling processes. “Initially every specific stream must be treated separately,” Bonazzi notes. “Then from a certain moment you can blend or mix the different streams.”

The company manufactures nylon 6 for use in carpet fibres for commercial, automotive and residential use, top picture, as well as for use in textiles and engineering plastics. Bottom picture, discarded fishing nets are one source of raw material to manufacture nylon 6.

To source its raw materials, Aquafil is collecting scrap from all over the world. The company’s international collection network includes facilities in the United States, Eqypt, Pakistan, Thailand, Hong Kong, Norway and Turkey. The company has also worked with fishermen’s associations and ports to establish an international collection network of used fishing nets.

He says fishing nets contain about 65 percent nylon 6 content. Old carpet fluff also contains a high percentage of nylon 6; the polymer accounts for half of the carpeting’s weight.

In 2013, the company plans to begin recycling elastic fabrics as well, Bonazzi says. Today these materials are usually dumped into landfills.


Positive Receptions
So far the reception to Econyl from Aquafil’s customers has been beyond expectations. “It’s even more successful than we could imagine,” Bonazzi says. “We started at the beginning of 2011 selling between 100 to 200 tons per month,” he says. “Now we are selling five times that.”

Aquafil is planning to as much as double its capacity, both by expanding its current operation and by adding a second plant in the future.

Overall, Bonazzi says, recycled products (including Econyl) currently account for about 15% of the company’s total production. But Aquafil has much loftier goals. Bonazzi hopes that within three or four years the percent of the company’s products made from recycled materials will increase to 40%. “Theoretically,” he adds, “we could substitute 100% of our business provided we are able to find the proper raw material.”

 

The author, managing editor of Recycling Today Global Edition, can be reached at lmckenna@gie.net.

Photos courtesy of Aquafil

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