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%...
One Cotton Product Lasts a Long Time
Cotton is a durable material that is ideal for reuse. In fact, cotton can be reused and recycled in many different ways. Second-hand sales and thrift stores allow cotton products to live a long life from one user to the next. But cotton products can find new life in other ways as well.
Cotton Clothes Can Become New Products, Materials, and Energy
The science and technologies that allow us to recycle cotton into new textiles and products are constantly evolving. Of course, cotton can be recycled to create new clothes, but this is not always the most efficient way to reuse cotton materials. Recycled pre- and post-consumer cotton textiles can also be used in a wide variety of nonwoven products, ranging from wet wipes, filters and automotive applications, to building and construction materials. This type of recycling is ideal for scrap materials or well-worn garments that are difficult to turn into new textiles.
One of the best-known cotton recycling programs, the Blue Jeans Go Green™ denim recycling program, was started in 2006. Denim collection efforts began on college campuses across the U.S. and have evolved over the past 15 years to include over 80 campuses and nearly 100 participating brands and retailers. Since the program started, over 3,900,000 pieces of denim have been recycled – diverting over 1,950 tons of textile waste from landfills. Collected pieces of denim have been recycled and manufactured by Bonded Logic, Inc., into UltraTouch™ denim insulating material used in various applications from home building and cold shipping solutions packaging to automotive and home appliances. As a result of the denim collected over 7,000,000 square feet of natural cotton fiber insulation for has been created. Historically, a significant amount of the building insulation has been granted to Habitat for Humanity, a non-profit helping people repair and improve homes, and other community building projects across the U.S. The Blue Jeans Go Green™ program collaborates with many brands and retailers to offer consumers denim recycling in-store and online, with many providing discounts on new denim apparel items in exchange for recycling unwanted jeans. Additionally, the program offers individuals, corporations and organizations across the U.S. the opportunity to get involved through contributing denim via corporate responsibility initiatives and mail-in options.1
Bioenergy production from waste cotton clothing is yet another way to give life to products that cannot be reused, while also reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The combustion of cellulose biomass found in discarded cotton textiles to create electricity could save 68 million tons of CO2 equivalent per year2 – enough to power more than 7 million homes for one year.3
In addition, a new project is underway to turn cotton into new biobased building blocks through a chemical recycling process. Cotton is nearly pure cellulose, which is a naturally occurring sugar molecule and the building block of a plant’s cell wall. Researchers at North Carolina State University (NCSU) and Cotton Incorporated have identified a highly efficient process that takes advantage of this by essentially turning cotton back into cellulose – a bio-based product that can be used to make sustainable chemicals and additives.4
Because cotton is nearly pure cellulose, it readily degrades in the natural environment, and studies have shown that cotton fabric biodegrades in an industrial compost.5 Once cotton fabric has reached the end of its life it can biodegrade in soil6 for use in future crops.
The Whole Cotton Plant is Recyclable
Recycling is not just about textiles. Even parts of the cotton plant that would otherwise be considered waste can be used again. In a new project, Ecovative Design used cotton burrs, an agricultural waste product consisting of cotton “leftovers” after the fiber and seed have been fully used, to create biodegradable packaging that can be composted after use. Innovations like these have the potential to provide much-needed alternatives to single-use plastic packaging.
Cotton gin waste has been used for years by the company Archroma in the production of their EarthColors® dyes, a bio-synthetic sulfur dye that uses cotton waste to replace petroleum-based components in the dyestuff for a more natural color.7
The remains of harvested cotton plants can also be used to create hydromulch – an erosion prevention resource used in spray-on slurries that cover bare lands until new vegetation can take root.8 Not only does hydromulch recycle agricultural waste products, it also protects the land from soil erosion and improves runoff water quality.
Blue Jeans Go Green Denim Recycling Program
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...
When you think of cotton, you think of the fiber for clothing and personal care items. Did you know the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) regulates cotton as a food crop? The food service and restaurant industries have been using Cottonseed oil, a coproduct of cotton...
- Cotton Incorporated, “ LCA UPDATE OF COTTON FIBER AND FABRIC LIFE CYCLE INVENTORY,” ed. Christoph Koffler and Susan Murphy, LCA UPDATE OF COTTON FIBER AND FABRIC LIFE CYCLE INVENTORY (Cotton Incorporated, March 17, 2017), https://cottontoday.cottoninc.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/2016-LCA-Full-Report-Update.pdf.
- Staff. “Our Clothes Are Polluting the Environment. Here’s A Solution.” Waste Reduction & Recycling. North Carolina State University, October 29, 2020. https://recycling.ncsu.edu/2020/10/29/our-clothes-are-polluting-the-environment-heres-a-solution/.
- Li, Lili, Margaret Frey, and Kristie J Browning. “Biodegradability Study on Cotton and Polyester Fabrics.” Journal of Engineered Fibers and Fabrics 5, no. 4 (December 1, 2010): 155892501000500. https://doi.org/10.1177/155892501000500406.
- Smith, Soshana, Mehmet Ozturk, and Margaret Frey. “Soil Biodegradation of Cotton Fabrics Treated with Common Finishes.” Cellulose 28, no. 7 (March 17, 2021): 4485–94. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10570-020-03666-w.
- EarthColors® by ARCHROMA: Sustainable textile dyes synthesized from waste. Archroma. (2021, July 2). https://www.archroma.com/innovations/earth-colors-by-archroma.