Soil Health

One of the most serious issues with a non-circular, or disposable, economy is the amount of improperly discarded waste entering the environment. Because of this waste, large amounts of plastics and other harmful materials enter our ecosystems, our water and our bodies.

This is why textile biodegradability is extremely important, and cotton provides a best-in-class example. As a plant, a fiber, a textile and more, cotton is naturally circular. It can be used in many ways, repurposed and reused and biodegrades naturally when it enters the environment. These characteristics set cotton far apart from synthetic fibers – particularly those made from petrochemicals, like polyester, which shed microplastics into the environment, adding to the significant and growing problem of microplastics in the world’s ecosystems.

What are Microplastics and What Do They Have to Do With My T-Shirt?

Microplastics are among the greatest threats to our oceans and waterways. They’re exactly what they sound like: microscopic pieces of plastic that are found in products we use every day, and that eventually make their way into the environment. The problem of microplastics has become so significant that these tiny particles are in our food and water – in fact, a recent study conducted by the University of Newcastle shows that each of us consumes, on average, up to a credit card worth (5 grams) of microplastics by weight every week!1

As strange as it sounds, textiles are responsible for 35% of the microplastics found in our oceans.2 That’s because all textiles shed microfibers in the laundry, and synthetic textiles shed microfibers that are also microplastics. Cotton textiles also shed microfibers – but because those microfibers are natural, they biodegrade relatively quickly (at a similar rate to an oak leaf) in all tested natural environments.3,4,5

What Happens to Textiles After We Use Them?

Ideally, all textiles would be recycled to create an important stream of new, raw materials. In reality 66% of textiles end up in landfills, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

This presents a challenge in achieving a more sustainable world: The material a textile is made from has a huge impact on the amount of harm it can do to the environment. While we should minimize the amount of textiles that end up in a landfill, choosing cotton is a safer option in case it does.

How Do We Know For Sure How Well Cotton Biodegrades?

There is a growing body of evidence showing that cotton biodegrades in all natural environments. In wastewater, fresh water, and salt water conditions cotton microfibers biodegrade readily while polyester microfibers are persistent and do not readily degrade.

Researchers from Cotton Incorporated, and Cornell University demonstrated years ago that cotton is compostable and will biodegrade on land at a faster rate than synthetics like polyester. Then, researchers from Cotton Incorporated, North Carolina State University and Duke University turned their attention to aquatic environments and determined that raw cotton microfibers decomposed faster than polyester in fresh water, salt water, and water treatment facilities.4 Their most recent research, published in 2021, demonstrates that even when textile finishes such as silicone softener, durable press, water repellent, or a blue reactive dye are applied, the biodegradation of cotton fibers is not significantly inhibited and sometimes the rates of biodegradation increase.5

In addition to these studies, a recent study performed by Cornell University showed that cotton containing dyes and finishes will decompose in soil.6

Chart - Microfiber Remaining in Aquatic Environments

MICROFIBER ANIMATION

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How Cotton Can Fit Into a Sustainable Future

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  1. [1] Kala Senathirajah et al., “Estimation of the Mass of Microplastics Ingested – A Pivotal First Step towards Human Health Risk Assessment,” Journal of Hazardous Materials 404 (2021): p. 124004, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jhazmat.2020.124004.
  2. “Invisible Plastic Particles from Textiles and Tyres a Major Source of Ocean Pollution – IUCN Study,” IUCN, March 10, 2017, https://www.iucn.org/news/secretariat/201702/invisible-plastic-particles-textiles-and-tyres-major-source-ocean-pollution-%E2%80%93-iucn-study.
  3. Marielis C. Zambrano et al., “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 151 (2020): p. 110826, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpolbul.2019.110826.
  4. Marielis C. Zambrano et al., “Microfibers Generated from the Laundering of Cotton, Rayon and Polyester Based Fabrics and Their Aquatic Biodegradation,” Marine Pollution Bulletin 142 (2019): pp. 394-407, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpolbul.2019.02.062.
  5. Marielis C. Zambrano et al., “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 165 (2021): p. 112030, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpolbul.2021.112030.
  6.  “(PDF) Biodegradability Study on Cotton and Polyester Fabrics,” ResearchGate, accessed May 11, 2021, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/267243642_Biodegradability_Study_on_Cotton_and_Polyester_Fabrics.