The Circularity of Cotton
As a plant and natural fiber, cotton is inherently circular. It is grown from the earth, can be reused and recycled in a variety of ways, and biodegrades when it is ultimately returned to the earth. And, all parts of the cotton plant, including stems, lint and seeds, can be used.
Cotton cycles carbon out of the atmosphere through the natural process of photosynthesis, during which carbon dioxide is absorbed, and carbon is then sequestered, or stored, in biomass above and below the ground. When crop residues are left on the ground and returned to the earth, the sequestered carbon in the plant residue can increase carbon in the soil, acting as a carbon sink.3
Cottonseed: An And Crop
Cotton is well known as an apparel and home textile fiber, but it also has many other uses – like spray-on hydromulch derived from cottonseed, feed for cattle and fish, and even cooking oil and baking flour for human consumption.
Cotton textiles, such as used clothing, can be recycled for a second life as textiles or to create new products in new industries. That means cotton textiles that have been discarded can be used again, displacing the need for new raw materials in a variety of industries.
Cotton microfibers biodegrade readily in wastewater treatment conditions, fresh water, and sea water whereas many synthetic microfibers do not readily degrade and persist in the environment for long periods of time. In fact, recent research shows that cotton microfibers degrade at the same rate as or faster than an oak leaf.4
Growing cotton can be considered circular agriculture. Cotton is a natural fiber, cultivated from natural inputs such as the sun, rainwater and soil. It also stores carbon dioxide the plant has absorbed from the atmosphere. Cotton is therefore inherently circular – and modern practices are leading the way towards making cotton a net negative carbon contributor. As more growers increase renewable energy use to power farm equipment, as more farms use no-till strategies and cover crops to improve soil health, farm circularity is increased. By improving farm circularity, carbon sequestration in the soil increases while overall greenhouse gas emissions on the farm are reduced.5
RecycleBrands know textile recycling is an important move in advancing the circular economy – and meeting customer/consumer expectations. Collection boxes and takeback programs are creating more and more avenues for recycling* textiles into new products such as nonwovens.
In a 12-week research trial, synthetic fiber samples broke down by only 0.8% in an industrial compost environment. Cotton samples, on the other hand, degraded by 89% – meaning the cotton’s ability to degrade was significantly better than that of the synthetic fiber.**
As we continue to look for ways to make cotton more sustainable, our biggest ally is science. At Cotton Incorporated, we regularly team with leading research institutions to scientifically study how to make cotton more sustainable – either by reducing environmental...
Consumers are increasingly interested in sustainability and how the choices they make affect the environment. Responses to Cotton Incorporated’s Lifestyle Monitor™ survey show that consumer interest in sustainability and apparel has increased from 46% in 2011 to 49.7%...
Have you ever picked up your go-to cotton t-shirt and considered how this garment came from a farm to your closet? While many of us appreciate the qualities this natural fiber brings to our favorite clothes, it’s easy to forget that what we are wearing started with a...
- World Resources Institute & Apparel Impact Institute (2021). Roadmap to Net Zero Delivering Science-Based Targets in the Apparel Sector.
- Li, L., Frey, M., & Browning, K. J. (2010). Biodegradability Study on Cotton and Polyester Fabrics. Journal of Engineered Fibers and Fabrics, 5 (4), 42–53. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/155892501000500406. Also, see research conducted with North Carolina State University (2018), https://www.cottonworks.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Understanding-the-Plastics-Problem_pages.pdf.
- Zhang, P., Xu, S., Zhang, G., Pu, X., Wang, J., & Zhang, W. (2019). Carbon cycle in response to residue management and fertilizer application in cotton field in arid Northwest China. Journal of Integrative Agriculture, 18 (5), 1103–1119. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2095-3119(18)62075-1.
- Zambrano MC, Pawlak JJ, Daystar J, Ankeny M, Venditti RA. (2021). Impact of dyes and finishes on the aquatic biodegradability of cotton textile fibers and microfibers released on laundering clothes: Correlations between enzyme adsorption and activity and biodegradation rates. Mar Pollut Bull.
- American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers. (2021). Transforming Food and Agriculture to Circular Systems. Special Issue.