These microfibers are too small to be completely filtered by wastewater treatment equipment, so every time fabric is washed, microfibers enter our waterways. So, the type of fabric we choose matters, since synthetic textiles are responsible for 35% of the microplastics found in our oceans.1 If plastic pollution continues unchecked, there may be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050.2

Because they can’t be seen with the naked eye, microplastics can easily spread into different environments. In fact, on average, every one of us eats the equivalent of a credit card worth of microplastics every week without even knowing it.3 Reducing the amount of microplastics entering global ecosystems is critical, and we can all make a difference by changing how we choose to buy, use, reuse and dispose of a range of consumer goods – including textiles. Cotton microfibers are natural and biodegrade unlike synthetic fibers like polyester, and therefore cotton microfibers do not contribute to the plastic pollution problem.4

Research shows that cotton fabrics are compostable and degrade at much faster rates than polyester fabrics under industrial compost conditions.5

Cotton microfibers biodegrade by up to 90% in just 40 days in wastewater treatment environments.6

Even when treatments such as softeners, water repellents, and durable press are applied to cotton, the cotton still degrades to the same or a higher degree than oak leaves.7

IN THIS SECTION
Irregation

Biocompatibility

Polyester and other synthetic fabrics are made using petrochemicals, which come from crude oil. In contrast, cotton is made from the natural fibers of cotton plants.

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Textile Dyes

Biodegradation

Cotton microfibers biodegrade readily in wastewater treatment conditions, fresh water, and sea water whereas synthetic microfibers do not easily degrade and persist in the environment for long periods of time.8 In fact, recent research shows that cotton microfibers degrade faster than an oak leaf.9 After 35 days in lake water environments, 86% of cotton fibers had biodegraded,10 while it would take a polyester shirt between 20 and 200 years to completely decompose under the same conditions.11

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Recent research has shown that when microfibers are shed from garments made of a cotton and polyester blend, the cotton microfibers biodegrade, while polyester does not. After as little as 20 days, much of the cotton microfibers are gone, leaving mostly polyester behind.12
MICROFIBER ANIMATION
Q&A VIDEO WITH MARY ANKENY

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Simply Science: cotton’s decomposition

Gearing up for spring cleaning? Before you dive head first into closet clean-ups, take a moment to consider what happens to clothes after we purge them. The average American disposes 81 pounds of textiles each year, according to the Secondary Materials and Recycled...

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  1. https://eur03.safelinks.protection.outlook.com/GetUrlReputation
  2. World Economic Forum. (2016). The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics. 1–36. http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_The_New_Plastics_Economy.pdf.
  3. Dalberg and University of Newcastle 2019: No plastic in nature: assessing plastic ingestion from nature to people. Retrieved from: Plastic ingestion by people could be equating to a credit card a week. The University of Newcastle, Australia. (2019, June 24). https://www.newcastle.edu.au/newsroom/featured/plastic-ingestion-by-people-could-be-equating-to-a-credit-card-a-week.
  4. Research conducted by Cotton Incorporated, the Cotton Research and Development Corporation in Australia and North Carolina State University, 2018 – see biodegradability page for more details
  5. Li, L., Frey, M., & Browning, K. J. (2010). Biodegradability Study on Cotton and Polyester Fabrics . Journal of Engineered Fibers and Fabrics5(4), 42–53. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/155892501000500406.
  6. Zambrano, M. C., Pawlak, J. J., Daystar, J., Ankeny, M., Goller, C. C., & Venditti, R. A. (2020, January 29). Aerobic biodegradation in freshwater and marine environments of textile microfibers generated in clothes laundering: Effects of cellulose and polyester-based microfibers on the microbiome. Marine Pollution Bulletin. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0025326X19309828?via%3Dihub.
  7. Zambrano, M. C., Pawlak, J. J., Daystar, J., Ankeny, M., & Venditti, R. A. (2021, February 6). 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. Marine Pollution Bulletin. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0025326X21000643?CMX_ID=&SIS_ID=&dgcid=STMJ_AUTH_SERV_PUBLISHED.
  8. Zambrano, M. C., Pawlak, J. J., Daystar, J., Ankeny, M., Goller, C. C., & Venditti, R. A. (2020, January 29). Aerobic biodegradation in freshwater and marine environments of textile microfibers generated in clothes laundering: Effects of cellulose and polyester-based microfibers on the microbiome. Marine Pollution Bulletin. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0025326X19309828?via%3Dihub.
  9. Zambrano, M. C., Pawlak, J. J., Daystar, J., Ankeny, M., & Venditti, R. A. (2020, November 7). Impact of dyes and finishes on the microfibers released on the laundering of cotton knitted fabrics. Environmental Pollution. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0269749120366872.
  10. Cotton, Inc., Cotton and the Environment: Answers to the Questions People Keep Asking, December 2018.
  11. Elven, M. van. (2021, March 9). How sustainable is recycled polyester? FashionUnited. https://fashionunited.uk/news/fashion/how-sustainable-is-recycled-polyester/2018111540000.
  12. Zambrano, M. C., Pawlak, J. J., Daystar, J., Ankeny, M., Goller, C. C., & Venditti, R. A. (2020, January 29). Aerobic biodegradation in freshwater and marine environments of textile microfibers generated in clothes laundering: Effects of cellulose and polyester-based microfibers on the microbiome. Marine Pollution Bulletin. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0025326X19309828?via%3Dihub.