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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Jan/Feb 2002 : Eco-Intelligence

Eco-Intelligence
The Promise of Nylon 6

This “eco-effective” material changed the carpet industry. Now it calls for a shift in sustainable design.


by william mcdonough and
michael braungart

For nearly a decade we have been working closely with forward-thinking companies to lay the foundation for an era of ecologically intelligent design. As active partners with our clients in the design process, we have been privileged to observe companies begin to transform the way they do business, phasing out wasteful or unhealthy products or manufacturing systems in favor of materials and industrial processes with positive, even nutritious effects on the world.

As the desire to develop sustaining enterprises grows, we thought it would be instructive to examine the breakthroughs and innovations that are revolutionizing product design; they offer lessons, insights and practices that can inform a wider movement toward a life-centered commerce that creates economic, social and ecological value. So in this new series for green@work, we’ll be offering case studies that suggest some of the ways in which successful companies such as Ford Motor Co. and Nike have embraced and benefited from ecologically intelligent design—what we call “eco-effectiveness.” Our first case study looks at the carpet industry, the chemical company, BASF, and the development of Savant™, a fiber reconceived for the 21st century from a material long in the marketplace.

Eco-effectiveness: Theory and Practice
First, we’d like to tell you a little about our design paradigm, eco-effectiveness. It’s built on the idea that nothing exceeds the effectiveness of the Earth’s natural cycles: In nature, the abundant flow of energy and nutrients is useful, intelligent and safe. A tree, for example, makes food from the sun, sequesters carbon, creates oxygen, filters water, blossoms each spring and bears fruit. Every last life-giving particle and process of the tree’s existence contributes in some way to the health of its surroundings. Even in death the tree contributes to the fecundity of nature as it decomposes and provides food for the soil. We could say its life cycle is cradle-to-cradle—it provides nourishment for something new after each useful life.

Likewise, designers can tap into the abundance and intelligence of these natural systems. Employing the effectiveness of nutrient cycling, we can, like the tree, create products that provide nourishment and services for both people and nature. In the eco-effective design paradigm, we actively define a product’s ingredients as nutrients for the Earth’s two discrete metabolisms: the cycles of nature and the cycles of industry. In a cradle-to-cradle world, a product’s biological nutrients and technical nutrients would flow in one or the other of these discrete, closed-loop cycles, providing after each useful life either nourishment to nature or materials for new products.

"We would like to see a true transformation of commerce in which design goes beyond using nature efficiently and, instead, creates products that nourish the respective spheres of nature and industry.”
—William McDonough and Michael Braungart

In the textile industry, for example, we’ve helped companies conceive fabrics that become either mulch for the soil—a biological nutrient—or rematerialized ingredients for industry—a technical nutrient. Ultimately, products such as these eliminate the concept of waste, yet another thing we’ve learned from nature’s effective systems.

Let’s take a closer look at a product conceived as a biological nutrient. With Design Tex and the Swiss textile mill, Rohner, we developed an upholstery fabric that flows in the biological metabolism—a product so safe you could literally eat it. During the design process we looked at every chemical ingredient that would be used in the manufacturing of the fabric—the fiber, the dyes, the finishes—to be sure that it was safe and nutritious for nature. The result was a material of blended wool and ramie that could be removed from the frame of a chair when the fabric wore out and tossed onto the ground to naturally biodegrade, in effect providing food for the soil. In addition to creating a nutritious fabric, the manufacturing process actually filtered the water used in the Rohner plant.

While biological nutrients are ideal for products that are fairly quickly consumed, technical nutrients are those materials that are made of highly stable ingredients that can be used again and again. Technical nutrients are valuable materials used in what we call products of service, which are designed by manufacturers to be retrieved and reused.

The carpet industry, for example, has adopted our product of service idea and is focusing its business on the concept that carpet can be designed for reclamation.

It’s important to note, however, that many carpets on the market contain questionable, potentially toxic materials such as PVC, which cannot safely flow in technical cycles. Instead, these materials are shredded and blended into downcycled materials of lower quality—a nylon reinforced PVC mush, for example. This is not really a strategy of change as much as an adjustment within a purely economic model. An eco-effective strategy, on the other hand, would imply a redesign of the industry so that safe carpet materials would maintain their value through many lives in the technical metabolism as they are retrieved and reused without any significant loss of material or energy.

Nylon 6 Transforms the Carpet Industry
Nylon 6 is an ideal material for use as a technical nutrient and the key to the transformation of the carpet industry. It is first of all highly stable, and carpet yarn made from nylon 6 is easily depolymerized into its precursor, caprolactam. The heat used in the process can be largely recovered, and caprolactam, in turn, can be re-polymerized and made again into nylon 6. The entire process recovers more than 99 percent of the materials used to make nylon 6 carpet yarn. In contrast, nylon 6,6, a popular carpet material, is made of two constituent elements—trying to separate and re-use them, says BASF’s Ian Wolstenholme, is like “trying to unbake a cake.”

Nylon 6 was first developed in the 1930s, yet only in the past decade has a company (BASF) seen its value as a material that can be retrieved and reused in closed loop cycles. In 1996, BASF initiated its “6ix Again” nylon recycling program, and the company is currently following our eco-effective strategy as it works to design a carpet yarn and develop systems for its reclamation that would make nylon 6 a pure technical nutrient.

BASF’s path to eco-effectiveness began somewhat indirectly. In 1996, the company initiated a series of town hall-style meetings across the United States with the architecture and design community. BASF, said Wolstenholme, wanted to hear from industry professionals what they were looking for in a commercial carpet. At these gatherings, architects and designers typically came up with a wish list of about 20 attributes for the ideal carpet, such as wool-like luster or increased anti-static properties. When asked to choose their top three attributes, 80 percent of the design professionals chose stain removal, followed closely by soil resistance and a wide, flexible spectrum of color.

In response, BASF developed a carpet material called Savant, made from nylon 6 fiber. Carpet yarn is typically pre-dyed, but through a combination of polymer and fiber engineering, Savant can be dyed in custom colors at the last possible moment to reflect fashion and customer taste, yet it has properties that make it inherently stain resistant and colorfast. The fiber is so stain resistant that BASF will replace any stained carpet woven of Savant within 10 years of delivery.

Those properties make Savant a competitive, high-quality product. But what is even more interesting to us is its potential as a technical nutrient. Because it is made of nylon 6, Savant can be depolymerized and used again and again, which is just what BASF has begun to do. During a second round of town meetings, BASF began to hear that many designers wanted to use materials that enhanced sustainable design. Revisiting Savant, the company began to use recycled content from its carpet take back program, “6ix Again.” Now, using the chemical recycling process, BASF can retrieve old nylon 6 and enhance its properties, transforming it into Savant. Rather than being downcycled into a material with less value, the used nylon is what we call upcycled into a product of higher quality, closing the technical cycle with a flourish. The nylon is rematerialized, not dematerialized—the essence of cradle-to-cradle design.

The implications of this for the carpet industry, indeed for many industries, are profound. Proponents of dematerialization aim to reduce the amount of a resource used to create a product. They want to make thinner paper, lighter packaging, a better aluminum can. In this world, less is more. We are proposing something different. We would like to see a true transformation of commerce in which design goes beyond using nature efficiently and, instead, creates products that nourish the respective spheres of nature and industry. Cradle-to-cradle design is the practice of this hope; it allows today’s companies to begin to bring forth products and systems that enrich the natural world and deliver more people more of what they want, need and love.

The Steps Ahead
For all its promise, Savant is not yet a pure technical nutrient. BASF selects environmentally safe ingredients for Savant, but one of the preconditions for a material’s safe flow through the technical metabolism is that all its elements are conceived as retrievable nutrients. Working with MBDC, our design chemistry firm, BASF will now begin to actively select and develop pigments and additives that, like nylon 6, can be used again and again. The technology to recover additives and pigments already exists.

The systematic approach of the eco-effective design protocol extends to the development of the systems and logistics for the reclamation of technical materials. BASF’s nylon 6 recycling program is a good start. Ultimately, following an eco-effective agenda, the company could perhaps become a nylon bank, leasing nylon as a product of service for defined use periods within a system that guarantees the reclamation and reuse of the material in a closed-loop technical cycle.

Such a system will not only create a stable market for nylon 6, but an expanding market, as recycling cuts costs and designers begin to explore the material’s many uses. Along with its high chemical stability, the low toxicity of its building blocks and the ease with which it can be upcycled, nylon 6 is an exceedingly versatile material. As a plastic it is strong and durable; as a fiber it is flexible and resilient. It performs equally well as the housing for electronic equipment, automobile windshields or outdoor gear.

One pitfall to avoid in the technosphere is designing a product with a very short life—what we call a product of consumption—as a technical nutrient. Nylon stockings, for example, are made for short-term use, and there is no effective system in place for recovering them. If they were made of nylon 6, it would be a waste of valuable material. A more intelligent design for stockings might employ a fine fiber created from a biological nutrient, which, like our DesignTex fabric, could be a compostable material that is nonetheless elegant and comfortable against the skin.

That being said, the possible applications of nylon 6 are many. In fact, we’d like to invite the design community to come up with a host of new, innovative products made of nylon 6 and designed as technical nutrients. BASF’s Bob Armstrong, a former research and development manager currently a representative for quality and environmental issues, will help you find knowledgeable sources on performance data for nylon 6 as well as information on the availability of the material. He can be reached at 704-423-2376. The MBDC team, at 434-295-1111, and on-line at www.mbdc.com, is available to provide technical consulting on the systems and logistics of designing material recovery systems. We hope this invitation sparks the emergence of a whole spectrum of products that help create an enduring market for high-quality technical nutrients.

As it has been said, if it exists, it is possible. We have reached a point in the development of the design arts and sciences in which all the tools for ecologically intelligent design have been assembled. The materials exist; the technology exists; the knowledge and creativity exist. The story of nylon 6 is just one of many that illustrate how the merging of all of those elements can yield effective, beneficial, high-quality products. A world of intelligent design and sustaining prosperity is not only possible, it has begun to take shape in products already in the marketplace. Someday soon you just might find one of them right underfoot.


William A. McDonough, FAIA, and Michael Braungart are founders and principals of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, a consultancy leading a wide variety of companies into what the two call the “Next Industrial Revolution” by implementing eco-effective design and commerce strategies that will result in a future of sustaining and long-term prosperity. For more information, visit www.mbdc.com.


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