The ‘Lon and Winding Road: leaps toward sustainable nylon, Revlon bio-packaging

July 21, 2022 |

Been a lon, lon day here in Digestville, and that’s no typo. We have news on Revlon and nylon, taking a step towards that happy day when product makers no longer Use the Sky as a Free Sewer.

From Italy and California news has arrived that long-time partners Genomatica and nylon giant Aquafil broke through — yes, demo-scale production runs for plant-based nylon-6. Genomatica and Aquafil have produced the first several tons of plant-based nylon-6 building block caprolactam, have converted it to nylon-6 polymer, and are now in the process of transforming it for evaluation in nylon applications such as yarns for textile and carpet and engineering plastics as part of pre-commercial quantities from demonstration production taking place in Europe

It’s been a long time coming.

Seems to us, the story goes back to at least 2015, when Nexant authored a PERP report that looked at the GENO technology for producing caprolactam metabolically through adipic acid. We liked the CO2 profile, a lot, even then. The GHG emissions of nylon 6,6 and nylon 6 production are not only from the fossil carbon chemistry and fuel burning, but also from nitrous oxide, generated as a by-product during the production of adipic acid and nitric acid. So, here was some new options. At the time, we wondered about the economics — not because oils was something like $25 at the time, but because we simply hadn’t seen anything about costs at scale. We still don’t have the hard data on that — but the combination of this multi-year effort and the current $97 oil price suggests that the economics may well be attractive.

The material is intended to reshape the $22B nylon industry, enabling brands to meet demand from consumers for sustainable everyday materials from apparel to automotive parts to carpets. 

The Genomatica backstory

Plant-based nylon-6 is Geno’s third major product line on a path to commercialization. The company has executed high impact deals with a range of brands to accelerate the global commercialization of sustainable materials, with the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 100 million tons in upcoming years.

Aquafil was the first to join Genomatica’s program, bringing funding support and nylon-related chemical, quality and market expertise. Additionally, Project EFFECTIVE, a consortium with 12 partners including major brands like H&M, Vaude, Carvico and Balsan, was formed to drive the production of more sustainable bio-based fibers for widely-used consumer products made from renewable feedstocks. 

Caprolactam is made by a laborious and fossil-intensive process. The conventional way to do it is to blend a range of petroleum molecules with hydrogen, expose to a catalyst to make a reformate,  extract the aromatics with a solvent, distill benzene  out of the soup,. hydrogenate it to make from cyclohexane which is converted to cyclohexanone and then Cyclohexanone oxime. Finally, via a Beckmann rearrangement, producing e-caprolactam. It’s a painful number of steps. No wonder refineries look so weird. 

Reaction from the Stakeholders

They’re pleased and delighted, we’re delighted and pleased to report.

“Now, more than ever, global brands are taking action to incorporate sustainable materials into their products,” said Christophe Schilling, Geno CEO. “We’re working to build purposeful, traceable and transparent supply chains, in this case for nylon 6, with the goal to provide more sustainable products that consumers demand and material solutions that can help brands achieve their ESG goals.

“The world needs every possible approach put into action to make supply chains sustainable, and making bio-based nylon an essential piece of that,” said Giulio Bonazzi, Aquafil CEO. “Plant-based nylon can perfectly complement our approach to depolymerizing nylon products once they reach the end of their useful life. Together, we share a vision to lead the transition to more sustainable materials which has driven our long-term collaboration.”

The Origin Materials, Revlon storyline

Back in California, Origin Materials and Revlon have revealed a joint initiative to develop advanced carbon negative materials for next generation cosmetics packaging. As part of the initiative, Revlon has signed a memorandum of understanding to reserve commercial volumes of Origin PET.

The joint initiative’s goal is to pursue the rapid development and commercialization of new sustainable materials for cosmetics packaging based on Origin’s patented technology platform. The materials developed will support Revlon’s broader sustainability efforts, which include Revlon’s goal of driving responsible and ethical sourcing practices to better address the risks and challenges of a complex global supply chain.

The Origin Backstory

Origin has developed a platform for turning the carbon found in inexpensive, plentiful, non-food biomass such as sustainable wood residues into useful materials while capturing carbon in the process. Origin’s patented technology platform can help revolutionize the production of a wide range of end products, including clothing, textiles, plastics, packaging, car parts, tires, carpeting, toys, and more with a ~$1 trillion addressable market. 

Reaction from the Stakeholders

They’re excited and thrilled, we’re thrilled and excited to share.

“We are excited to partner in this initiative with Revlon, an iconic global brand with a deep commitment to the highest standards for performance,” said Rich Riley, Co-CEO of Origin Materials. “Together we will work to develop and bring to market carbon negative materials for next generation packaging to advance our goal of reducing the climate impact of the cosmetics industry.”

“Revlon’s initiative with Origin Materials will allow consumers at all price points to access sustainable, plant-based packaging,” said Keyla Lazardi, Chief Scientific Officer, Revlon. “As a company that is focused on driving sustainability in the beauty industry, Revlon is thrilled to advance the use of Origin’s carbon-negative bio-PET in the mass beauty space.”

The Bottom Line

Out in the world of renewable chemicals, the technology is hot, but the carbon support is dead cold. These molecules have to make it on their own from the moment of birth — no Low Carbon Nylon Standard, no Renewable Cosmetic Packing Standard to protect them. They;’re working, as they say in acrobat circles, without the net. So when a molecule comes forth and works at scale, it’s big news. Not only because of how hard it is to replace highly-subsidized petroleum with unprotected low-carbon alternatives — but because you feel the commitment of the companies involved, when breakthroughs occur. The ground shakes just a little in California every time you get a new molecule. Here’s we have two. PET, in more or less every clear plastic bottle you’ve been lately encouraged to worry about using. And, well, nylon — the platform molecule of the fashion industry, so well known that there’s even a popular magazine by that name.  

We think highly of wearables. It’s sustainability you can see, and feel on your skin. The bio-revolution is rarely front and center on the big show’s main stage, usually the molecules sort of hide back stage or somewhere behind the drums. But here you have two, nylon and PET.

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