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So is cotton biodegradable?

It is largely biodegradable because it is an organic material from a living organism grown from the Earth. It is not synthetic.

Cotton is naturally 95% cellulose – an organic compound that constitutes the plant cell walls and vegetable fibers. The remaining 5% are non-cellulosic compounds such as wax, pectic substances, organic acids, gusars, and other stuff that constitutes its primary outer covering. These are washed away under chemical treatment, and the cellulose content increases to up to 99%. 

Under microscopic conditions, cotton fibers are hollow. Not only does it make it easily degradable, but it gives soft, cold, breathable, and absorbent properties. It is so porous that it can hold water 24–27 times their weight.

Close up of the cotton plant
Photo Credit: PhillipMinnis

In a compost pile, 100% cotton may biodegrade within as little as a week to about 5 months. The decomposition length will vary depending on environmental conditions such as oxygen, water, temperature, pH, etc. This could take longer with a blend of other different fibers.

An Australia based study, co-conducted by Cotton Incorporated and the Cotton Research and Development Corporation, proved that cotton degrades in 243 days, with 76% degradation, while polyester fibers showed only 4% degradation. 

This means that cotton, may it be thrown on land or in water, will consistently degrade over time, which is a good indication that it is an environmentally-friendly material. 

Want to learn more? Check out our article Is Polyester Bad For The Environment for more eco-goodness!

Raw cotton in a basket
Photo Credit: Ratchat

Uses For Cotton

Cotton has been man’s priceless raw material possession since thousands of years ago. 

Cotton balls have been found in Mexico that dates back to 7000 years ago, while cotton clothing has been around ancient civilizations of the Egyptians during 3000 BC. 

During World War 1, the ribbon on typewriters was made from cotton. 

In our era, among the most popular cotton uses are textiles for clothing, medical supplies, hygienic supplies, linens, beddings, paddings, mattresses, and many others you could think of. Cotton Incorporated extends the non-conventional use of cotton to a material that efficiently and effectively cleans up oil spills.

In the textile industry, cotton is not the only biodegradable fabric. Other biodegradable textile materials include linen, wool, bamboo, hemp, silk, and some others. However, Cotton nearly tops the most biodegradable fabrics list when it remains pure and does not include other non-biodegradable or synthetic material. 

Clothing and the fashion industry remain the textile industry’s primary application – accounting for 60% of total textiles used. Unfortunately, this has proven itself a wasteful business. A significant amount of non-renewable resources are consumed to produce clothing. While that seems like a bad thing, it gets worse knowing that many personal garments will make their way to a landfill in less than a year. This is known as fast fashion.

Cotton, like most raw materials, requires processing and a lot of work before it is ready for commercial use
Photo Credit: jmci
Rows of raw cotton line the field, nearly ready for harvest
Photo Credit: PhillipMinnis

The 2017 Pulse of the Fashion Industry reported that 92 million tons of waste were generated by the said industry in 2015 alone. This is projected to increase by 63% in 2030. 

The demand for biodegradable clothes, mainly made from organic cotton, has increased in the past decade. More and more people would like to take part in sustainability.

Is Cotton A Better Choice?

Mainstream cotton production negatively impacts the environment because of high water consumption and greenhouse gas emissions from synthetic fertilizer use and pesticide requirements.

Nevertheless, cotton producers are continually making improvements to minimize cotton’s environmental footprint. According to Field to Market Report in 2016, the Greenhouse Gas Emission indicator of cotton improved from approximately 2.1 pounds CO2e per pound lint in 1980 to 1.3 pounds CO2e per pound lint in 2015. The indicator factors in CO2 emissions, and also irrigation water efficiency and overall energy consumption.

Organic cotton is quite the different sight
Photo Credit: Deyan Georgiev

Organic cotton has likewise been gaining popularity in biodegradable clothing. Besides being biodegradable, the energy demand for organic cotton calculated on a per yield basis was also 62% lower than conventional cotton. Meanwhile, organic cotton’s total global warming potential was 46% lower than that of traditional cotton. 

And when it comes to ecological and social sustainability, organic cotton fares better than conventional cotton.

But what exactly does biodegradability mean?

This is important to understand, but the term is grossly overused.

The term biodegradability refers to an object’s ability to disintegrate or decompose through the work of microorganisms such as bacteria or fungi. Some termed it as a chemical dissolution of materials by bacteria or other biological means.

Through time biodegradable materials will get assimilated into the natural environment. Degradation occurs in two ways, either: 

  • Anaerobic decomposition – without oxygen, or: 
  • Aerobic decomposition – with oxygen 

Generally, aerobic biodegradation is faster than anaerobic biodegradation.

A more technical definition says: “biodegradability is the capacity for biological degradation of organic materials by living organisms down to the base substances such as water, carbon dioxide, methane, basic elements, and biomass.” 

Therefore, a biodegraded material can also become water, carbon dioxide, methane, or other elements and biomass. 

Biodegradability is often interchangeably used with compostability; however, they are NOT the same.

A biodegraded material does not always become a nutrient-rich compost (or plant fertilizer), but compostable materials are always biodegradable. The chemical composition of a biodegraded matter versus a compostable material is also not the same.

The European Standard EN 13432 and the US Standard ASTM D6400-99 sets out the criteria for what can or cannot be described as compostable and what can be called biodegradable. 

Among the critical characteristics of compostable material according to European standards would be: 

 Disintegrability – the physical decomposition of a product into tiny pieces. After 12 weeks, the test material residues’ mass has no less than 10% of the original mass after passing through a 2×2 mm mesh.

Biodegradability – the capability of the compostable material to be converted into CO2 under the action of microorganisms. The standard contains a mandatory threshold of at least 90% biodegradation that must be reached in less than 6 months (laboratory test method EN 14046).

Toxicity – Absence of adverse effects on the composting process, which means that the amount of heavy metals has to be below given maximum values, and the final compost must not be affected negatively (no reduction of agronomic value and no ecotoxicological effects on plant growth).

Organic cotton is biodegradable without interference or intervention. It is also compostable as long as it is subjected to favorable conditions (e.g., temperature, humidity, and aeration). 

Cotton on the stem
Photo Credit: hayatikayhan
So, Is Cotton Biodegradable?

Cotton sees use across the spectrum of consumer and commercial goods, including but not limited to clothing, beauty products, medical aid supplies, beddings, mattresses, and more.

Look for 100% cotton on the tag, and organic cotton is even better. Do your best to avoid synthetic materials and blends.

Remember that less is always more when it comes to our environment. Even shopping organic is worse than using what you’ve got just a little longer or making second-hand purchases.

Recycled materials are also a nice win for our Earth.

Every dollar that we spend is a vote, and trust us, companies are listening. So cast your votes wisely, and shop ethically and responsibly whenever possible.

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