Fashion has an impact beyond the closet.
With the rise of production in the fashion industry, demand for synthetic fibers, like polyester, has nearly doubled in the last 15 years.1 The care and disposal of garments and the biodegradability of raw materials, both natural and synthetic, is an important topic throughout the supply chain.
What happens when your favorite cotton shirt gets laundered? Or when it finally reaches the end of its functional life? In most cases, the shirt is donated, repurposed for things such as rags around the house, or thrown away.
Did you know the average American disposes of 70 pounds of textiles each year, according to the Council for Textile Recycling? If only about 10 pounds are donated, the remaining 60 pounds end up in landfills or other disposal environments.
Public awareness is growing of how textiles contribute to microfiber pollution. Since 2016, more than 6 million mentions of polyester, microfibers, and pollution have been made by the English-language media. Governments are banning certain single-use plastics. Consumers are demanding more sustainable alternatives.
Cotton Incorporated is dedicated to better understanding and communicating the impacts of supply chain and apparel decisions across the whole garment life cycle. Explore research on microfiber pollution in the environment, comparisons on fiber biodegradability in water and soil, and how natural fibers like cotton can play a role in the global solution to microfiber pollution.
- Macroplastic and microplastic pollution
- Cotton’s biodegradability in water
- Cotton’s biodegradability in soil
Ready to make a change? See biodegradable fabric alternatives and suppliers.
Macroplastic & Microplastic Pollution
Did you know apparel begins to break down in the wash?
Fabrics, both natural and synthetic, shed microfibers that enter into rivers, lakes, and oceans.
Research shows synthetic fibers contribute to plastic pollution in the earth’s water supply by shedding microplastics into waterways when laundered.2
Download the brochure: Understanding the Depth of the Plastics Problem.
What the Research Says
It’s estimated that there is now a minimum of 5.25 trillion plastic particles, weighing 270,000 tons, floating in the world’s oceans.3 These particles do not break down but continue to bio-accumulate causing further harm to Earth’s marine habitats.
By 2050, scientists project there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans.4
What goes into aquatic environments often ends up in the food we eat and the water we drink. In fact, there is now evidence of microplastics in every part of the food chain,5 including fish and water supplies around the world. Microplastics are tiny man-made fragments, fibers, pellets, or granules that are 5 mm or less in size.6
In the last four years, Adventure Scientists have collected over 2,677 samples in marine and freshwater systems globally, spanning every continent and ocean. The results indicate that microplastics are accumulating at a higher rate in marine systems (89% of samples) than in freshwater systems (51% of samples).6 This research provides one of the largest datasets that gives a representation of the scale of the microplastic pollution problem.
As the issue of microfiber and microplastic pollution continues to spread, consumers now often look to brands and retailers to make the next move.
Turning the Tides
Tackling Our Ocean’s Plastic Pollution Problem
Turning the Tides addresses the issue of plastic pollution in our oceans and presents a proposal to tackle this issue.
This webinar also presents updated research on the generation of microfibers in laundry, including cotton, polyester, and rayon.
Download Turning the Tides presentation slides.
Webinar originally played 3/20/19
Plastic-Free: Proving a Natural Solution
The European Commission adopted the world’s first comprehensive plastics strategy to decrease single-use plastics accounting for marine litter. This webinar covers this plastics strategy, legislative action against single-use plastic items and plastic fishing gear, brand and retailer awareness about the volume of microfibers in aquatic environments due to laundering of clothing, and alternatives to synthetic fibers and solutions to their effects on the environment.
Download Plastic-Free presentation slides.
Webinar originally played 4/21/21
Biodegradability in Water: Cotton vs. Synthetic Microfibers
Initial Methodology & Results
To better understand how cotton biodegrades in water, Cotton Incorporated and the Cotton Research and Development Corporation in Australia teamed up with North Carolina State University. The study’s objective was to determine the degradability of various types of microfibers in a wastewater environment, examining the path of cotton and synthetic microfibers as they shed in the wash, enter waterways, and breakdown in water.
After 243 days, cotton had 76% degradation while the polyester fibers showed 4% degradation, which means cotton degrades 95% more than polyester in wastewater. The research further shows that cotton will continue to degrade over time, unlike polyester whose degradation plateaued after the time tested.
Cotton’s Biodegradability in Aquatic Environments
Researchers from North Carolina State University and the University of California, Santa Barbara explain the science behind their research on microfibers.
This webinar also covers the problems microfibers pose to the natural environment.
Webinar originally played 4/24/18
Latest Research & Results
The research continued and a new methodology was determined to test the degradation rates of four fiber types: cotton, rayon, polyester, and cotton/polyester blend.
The microfibers were tested using established methodologies in different aquatic environments: wastewater, freshwater, and saltwater. The research was conducted according to ISO1485:19992005 and ASTM D6691 test methods.
The aquatic biodegradation research indicates that cellulosic fibers degrade significantly more than petroleum-based microfibers,7 leaving fewer microfibers behind.
Polyester microfibers show very little degradation in all three aquatic environments and are expected to persist in the environment for long periods of time based on the data trend chart, shown at right.
In the cotton/polyester blend, the cotton degrades, leaving only the polyester after 20+ days. Cotton also degrades faster than artificial cellulosic fibers like rayon.
This methodology includes theoretical oxygen demand that considers carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen already present in the cotton structure.
Cotton’s Biodegradability in Soil
The time it takes for a garment to biodegrade is how long it will sit in a landfill.
Choosing apparel made from natural materials reduces the time it takes to break down and return to the earth. Clothing made from synthetic materials such as polyester will biodegrade slower, and stay in a landfill longer, than clothing made with natural fibers such as cotton.
For many, the minute clothing and apparel leave their wardrobe, the garments are out of sight and out of mind. But for the garment itself, this is just a step in the process of its chemical breakdown, also referred to as biodegradation.
While nearly all materials are subject to biodegradation eventually, the rate at which materials decompose varies greatly depending on their chemical make-up. 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.
What you might not realize is that most polyester is made of polyethylene terephthalate, also referred to as PET, and more commonly known as the main ingredient in water bottles. So if you have ditched your plastic water bottle because of its environmental impact, consider how your polyester attire fares after it has left your closet.
Cotton’s Biodegradability in Various Environments
How quickly does cotton break down?
With a growing consumer market for wet wipes, there is also a growing concern in the nonwovens industry about the biodegradability of these single-use wipes. Recent studies evaluate cotton’s ability to biodegrade in a composting environment and in sewer and septic systems.
Webinar originally played 3/27/18
Natural, Biodegradable Fabric Alternatives
Cotton Incorporated has developed viable alternatives to synthetic microfiber fleece by creating cotton and cotton/wool blend fabrics designed to insulate and provide warmth while offering a natural, biodegradable option. The natural fibers shed from these fabrics easily break down in soil and wastewater environments.
To see the collection, contact your Cotton Incorporated Account Manager.
Many Cotton LEADS℠ partners provide various cotton/wool yarns and fabric developments in a range of blends and yarn counts, and can easily connect with your supply chain. Below is a list of suppliers who are currently offering cotton/wool products.
Bros Eastern Co., Ltd.
Contact: Ms. Lau Mable
Telephone: 86 13925244672
Capabilities: Yarn counts finer than 20/2
Dezhou Huayuan Eco-Technology
Contact: Mr. Li Xiangdong
Telephone: 86 13605349831
Capabilities: Yarn counts finer than 20/2
Qingdao Textile Group
Contact: Ms. Wang Lingling
Telephone: 86 13953205646
Capabilities: Yarn counts finer than 16/2
Ruyi Group Co., Ltd
Contact: Ms. Zhou Yanmin
Telephone: 86 13562778485
Capabilities: Yarn counts finer than 10/1
Contact: Mr. Howard Yoo
Capabilities: Yarn, 40/1, 50% cotton/50% wool
Contact: Mr. Richard Chen
Telephone: 886-2-2712 3998
Capabilities: Yarn count range of 16/1 – 30/1, 80% cotton/20% wool
Fung Fat Knitting Mfy. Ltd.
Contact: Stanley Kwok / Edward Tang
Capabilities: Knit Fabrics