Is Cotton Biodegradable?

Humankind has gone through various disasters for Millenia, but none is as worse as the tragedy that is slavery, specifically in the United States. Slavery treated people, primarily those of African and African-American origin as property, who could be bought sold or given away. The vice was used majorly for economic purposes of the enslavers, the enslaved being used in cotton fields until 1865.

Cotton is a natural fibre derived from cotton plants whose use dates back centuries and millennia. It is a staple textile of the fashion industry with every contemporary closet housing a large percentage of cotton items. Although the material comes from plants which would make it biodegradable, the same is still a matter of contention. This article goes through the environmental effects of cotton.

Is Cotton Biodegradable or Nonbiodegradable?

Certainly, cotton is biodegradable. given that it is a natural product, cotton is completely biodegradable. This means that cotton will break down when put into a composting pile or bin, or even when left on its own to decompose.

Biodegradation is the chemical dissolving of materials by bacteria or other biological means and once a product has biodegraded, it essentially disappears. Approximately 60% of all harvested cotton fiber is used to produce yarns and threads, which in turn are used in the manufacture of fabrics for clothing and indoor or outdoor furnishings.

Because of cotton’s biodegradable properties, it translates that all-cotton clothing can also be recycled and used in the manufacture of useful materials, such as household insulation.

Cotton is a natural material grown in fields and is therefore completely biodegradable. Cotton is biodegradable whether aerobically (with oxygen) or anaerobically (without oxygen), although it will degrade much more slowly under the anaerobic conditions than it would under aerobic conditions or in the compost heap or bin.

It, therefore, has an amazing advantage over other synthetic materials. It also means we do not have to worry about cotton in landfills as it will biodegrade with time.

However, just avoid having cotton end up in landfills, and reuse, recycle or compost it rather than throwing it away. Nonetheless, it is nice to know that even if it or its fabrics end up in landfills, they will not build up and contribute to the methane secretion that causes greenhouse gas build-up.

The only downside when it comes to cotton is that it cannot be grown organically without the need for using toxic chemicals. It, therefore, translates that when cotton biodegrades, it releases the chemical back into the ground and harm the environment.

They end up damaging the land, other plants, surrounding bodies of water and other animals that live around. The local area becomes disrupted and destroyed by the release of dangerous toxins. Luckily, organic cotton does not contain these chemicals and will therefore not harm the environment.

Is Cotton Cloth Biodegradable?

Yes, a fabric made from cotton, will biodegrade. The rate of biodegradation will however depend on the amount of cotton in the fabric, as well as the form or type of decomposing your cloth will take. For clothes with a higher cotton rate or even those made from 100% cotton, they will biodegrade in a few weeks.

Peaceful Dumpling argues that clothing items made of 100% cotton, decompose as quickly as one week. If an item of clothing is made entirely of natural cotton, it will successfully break down into compost.

However, you are advised to cut or tear the clothing into small strips to facilitate the process. Additionally, remove any buttons, zippers and other non-cotton embellishments before composting the clothing.

Clothing that contains a mixture of cotton and synthetic fibers like polyester, nylon, polyethylene or polypropylene can be a bit complex to biodegrade. This is because these synthetic fibers are a combination of elements that do not exist in nature and are mainly made from petroleum or plastics.

Nature has no corresponding microorganisms to break down these products, explaining why plastics do not biodegrade, and if they do, they will take forever. It is therefore unsure if clothing with such combinations, even with a high concentration of cotton, will biodegrade.

The other factor to check is the environment in which the clothing will be set to decompose. Clothing left under aerobic conditions, like composting, will take only a few weeks before it biodegrades.

As regards anaerobic conditions, it will still biodegrade, although it will take longer. When placed under a wastewater environment, the process will happen but will take almost a year. Likewise, under soil conditions, the process will go on much more quickly.

How Long Does It Take for Cotton to Biodegrade?

The duration of how long it takes before cotton completely biodegrades depends on several factors. Cotton Works contains several results of tests done where cotton was left to biodegrade under several conditions. In one research, under wastewater environment, after 243 days, the cotton had 76% degradation while polyester fibers showed 4% degradation.

This translates that cotton degrades 95% more than polyester in wastewater. From cross-multiplication mathematics, if 243 days result in 76% degradation, 100% degradation will therefore be achieved in about 320 days, which is just under 11 months.

Under soil conditions, synthetic fibers like polyester biodegrade much slower than cotton. Cotton biodegrades relatively quickly because it is made of cellulose, an organic compound that is the basis of plant cell walls and vegetable fibers.

Again, cotton degrades either aerobically or anaerobically. However, the aerobic reaction or if composted, where oxygen is involved, cotton will degrade much more quickly. Organic cotton, when composted, can decompose only in a few weeks. It is the better option for the environment, as it ensures little harm to humans, farmlands and the ecosystem as a whole.

According to Jackalo, cotton decomposes in about five months, although they do not explain if the time is for an aerobic or anaerobic reaction, or if the cotton is pure or made into different products containing other materials like polyester.

However, Peaceful Dumpling explains it better: clothing items made of 100% cotton can decompose as quickly as one week. It therefore translates, that products made from a mixture of cotton and other products, can take up to five months or more, depending on the percentage of cotton in the fabric.

Is Cotton Wool Biodegradable?

Cotton wool is biodegradable, but the arguments against biodegradation are way too many and need to be carefully looked at. Well, cotton wool from 100% organic cotton can biodegrade safely and is okay for the environment.

Unfortunately, cotton is grown using lots of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers and GMOs. If the cotton wool comes from cotton plants that did not involve any of these, they are safe for the environment. They will decompose quickly and can be a great addition to the soil.

However, some sources argue that even if cotton wool is biodegradable, it should not be allowed to. First, you should make sure it is 100% cotton wool. Some “cotton wool” products, like face pads, are blended with synthetic fibers to help them hold their shape.

Some, like medical dressing, might be coated with a synthetic material to make them less “woolly”. Although the cotton wool will break down quite quickly, the synthetic material will not decompose at all and will remain intact in the heaps or as little fibres spread throughout the compost.

Secondly, if it is pure cotton, the issue becomes what you have used the cotton wool for. If it has come into contact with chemicals such as oily cosmetics or disinfectants, or anything else on the “don’t compost” list, you probably should not want them contaminating your compost heap.

They might biodegrade, but the risk of poisoning your compost and subsequently land, plants, and bodies of water might be too high to take. Thirdly and most importantly, growing the crop, in general, is an issue to environmentalists. It relies heavily on lots of water, pesticides and fertilizers to grow. They are not an environmentally-conscious decision, making the entire thing not worth it.

Is Cotton Environmentally Friendly?

Yes, cotton is environmentally friendly. Not only is it environmentally friendly, but it is also sustainable and renewable. It is, therefore, an excellent choice for environmentally friendly fibre throughout its entire product life cycle. The plant itself has a short eight-to-nine-month renewable life cycle.

Other parts of the cotton plant can also be put to good use as well as used in the production of foods, plastics and paper products. What’s more, cotton itself as well as its subsequent products are biodegradable, making them compostable.

This means you can use the same product to enrich the soil through the final compost. The biodegradability and renewability of cotton make it a much better environmentally-friendly choice for clothing than clothes made from synthetic fibers. Unfortunately, there exist concerns about the cotton industry in general.

The crop is grown using pesticides and insecticides to control insect damage. The concern comes in because these harmful chemicals will harm the environment and human health.

Even when you compost such a product, the chemicals will leech into the ground, affecting the soil, plants and surrounding bodies of water. Additionally, growing the cotton plant requires large amounts of water, large chunks of land to grow, and can also result in soil erosion.

These are additional concerns especially in a day and age where the availability of water is increasingly becoming an issue. This is why many cotton-producing countries like the States and Australia are investing in newer technologies that will reduce the use of pesticides and water when growing the plant.

They are also investing in insect- and drought-resistant varieties of cotton. The environmental effects of these newer varieties remain unknown.

Is Cotton Compostable?

Yes, cotton is completely compostable. Since cotton is biodegradable, it makes the composting process quite easy. Cotton will biodegrade both anaerobically or aerobically, the latter of which requires oxygen, much like composting does. Items made from 100% cotton, like clothes, are therefore fit for the composting bin.

However, those that have a mixture, especially those containing synthetic fibres should not be composted as they will not break down and will only clog up your compost heap.

Also, avoid composting cotton or cotton wool that was grown under or made with chemicals or pesticides. This is because the chemicals will leech into compost and subsequently poison the soil, plants and nearby bodies of water.

To successfully compost cotton, tear the materials up into small pieces so that they rot down quicker. You should also avoid materials that contain a blend of cotton and synthetic fibers as they will not decompose.

The synthetic part might break up but will still not break down and you might be left with either lots of little tiny pieces of it throughout the compost or some longer strings, depending on how the synthetic material was incorporated. Also, only compost clothes that have been specifically advised to be composted.

Those in the ‘do not compost’ or stained with engine oil or paint should not be composted. With the right cotton or cotton products, it will be a benefit the composting bin with carbon as they are browns, and will subsequently benefit the soil and plants.


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About Rinkesh

A true environmentalist by heart ❤️. Founded Conserve Energy Future with the sole motto of providing helpful information related to our rapidly depleting environment. Unless you strongly believe in Elon Musk‘s idea of making Mars as another habitable planet, do remember that there really is no 'Planet B' in this whole universe.