Are clothes non-biodegradable? (5 factors responsible) 

In this article, the biodegradability of clothes will be answered. Other covered topics will be: 

  • What decides the biodegradability of clothes?
  • Do natural textiles impact the environment?
  • How do synthetic textiles gel with the environment?
  • Are clothes biodegradable?
  • Can clothes be recycled?
  • FAQs

Are clothes non-biodegradable?

Clothes are made from natural and non-natural fabrics. Clothes made from natural fabrics are biodegradable, whereas clothes made from non-natural fabrics are not biodegradable. 

Examples of natural fabric fibres may include cotton, wool, silk et cetera. Examples of non-natural fabric fibres may include viscose, rayon, and polyester. 

The presence or absence of biodegradability will greatly influence the time it is taken for a material to degrade. For example, cotton may degrade in about 5 months while this time may increase up to more than 500 years in the case of non-natural fabrics. 

Clothes made from both natural and synthetic fabrics can be recycled which can be harnessed to achieve the benefits such as better waste management, better resource management, economic edge, and reduced consumption of non-renewable resources. 

What decides the biodegradability of clothes?

Clothes are made from textiles. There are more than 7 billion people in the world. Everyone needs textile products to cover his/her body and provide other utilities as well such as insulation, protection from cold, sweat absorption et cetera. 

Textiles is a very huge umbrella that factors in many examples and sub-examples. Certain properties are important and imperative for textiles. These are: 

  • Style characteristics 
  • Utility 
  • Durability 
  • Performance 

Textile products may be divided into some classes and hierarchies based on the way they are made, their usability, and their environmental impacts. 

Textile products may usually be natural and synthetic. Natural textile products are obtained from nature. Common sources are plants and animals. For example, cotton is a natural fabric fibre that is obtained from cotton plants. 

Since the source of natural textile products is nature, it is assumed that there will be fewer impacts on nature and health arising from natural textile products. 

On the other hand, we have synthetic textile products. These products are made in the labs at the expense of chemicals and synthetic procedures. 

Since petroleum-based products are used to make synthetic fibres, there are a lot of negative impacts of synthetic fabric fibres on life and the environment. Further deliberations will be provided in the next sections of the article.

Common examples of synthetic textile products will be viscose, acrylic fabric et cetera. 

You may wonder what is the need for synthetic textile products if there are detrimental impacts of those products on the environment. 

For this, you need to understand the environmental-economic tradeoff. The primary reason why people and manufacturers opt for synthetic fabric fibres is that these textile products deliver better utility at even better prices. 

This, however, is achieved at the expense of our environment because there are known impacts of textile products on life and the environment.

The deciding factor here is that natural textiles are usually biodegradable whereas, non-natural textiles are usually non-biodegradable. This is largely because the microbes are unable to break down the structure of synthetic textiles. 

Do natural textiles impact the environment?

As per the environmental impact of natural textiles, it is mostly assumed that natural textiles will have no impact on the environment. This assumption is far from the truth. 

That is because of a number of reasons. Firstly, natural textiles are sources from plants and animals. If unsustainable amounts of textiles are made, there will be unjust pressure put on the life forms.

This pressure may also be met with the use of harmful chemicals such as fertilisers and pesticides. 

Fertilisers and pesticides, may then, in turn, cause environmental degradation in the form of soil pollution and water pollution.

Life on land and life in water may also be severely affected by the use of agrochemicals and these effects may also reciprocate to humans as well. 

Further, the unsustained production of natural textiles may also stem from issues of land misuse, infertility, and an unbalanced proportion of resources. 

Another impact of natural textiles on the environment is that the production process involved in textile making may include the use of harmful chemicals. 

These chemicals may present threats to both the workers present there and the environment at large. Consider the example of artificial dyes. 

Dyeing is an important step of textile production. Most of the natural textiles are dyed and bleached to obtain the desired colours and make sure that no impurity remains. 

However, the dyeing process has a lot of negative impacts on the environment. The dyeing process usually involves the use of synthetic dyes which may leach into the soil and water bodies. 

How do synthetic textiles gel with the environment?

The environmental impact of synthetic textiles is worse than that of natural textiles. This is because the former are made at the expense of products derived from fossil fuels. 

Further, since there are petroleum-based products involved, synthetic textiles are non-biodegradable and may persist in the environment for a very long time. 

The impacts of synthetic textiles on the environment can diverge into the following key points: 

  • Pollution
  • Global warming
  • GHG emissions
  • Rise in temperature
  • A rise in sea levels
  • Melting glaciers
  • More floods
  • Frequent droughts
  • Unprecedented weather patterns
  • Insects attacks
  • Land degradation
  • Food shortage
  • Food security concerns
  • Species endangerment 
  • Infiltration into the food chains
  • Loss of aquatic life
  • Accumulation of plastics
  • Disruptions of ecosystems

Are clothes biodegradable? (5 factors responsible for biodegradation) 

In order to build a stance on the biodegradability of clothes, it is important to know what biodegradability is in detail. 

Biodegradability is defined as the microbial breakdown of waste into simpler substances so that the waste may become a part of nature again. 

You may wonder why this is important. The process of breakdown of waste into simpler substances is important because it reduces waste accumulation and assimilation. 

If there is waste accumulation, there will be negative impacts of the waste on the environment and human life. 

There are some factors that are essential for the biodegradation process. These factors may include 

  • Microbes
  • Aeration 
  • Sunlight 
  • Temperature & pressure
  • Other external conditions 

You may think of biodegradability as a natural dustbin because it leads to waste segregation. If there is no biodegradability, there will be negative effects reciprocated to life and the environment. 

Based on biodegradability, there is a general understanding that waste may be categorised into two classes. One is biodegradable waste and the other is a non-biodegradable waste. 

Biodegradable waste is the type of waste which may be degraded by the action of microbes. There is a general rule of thumb that products and substances made from natural sources like plants and animals are included in the list of biodegradable waste. 

Whereas, products and substances made from non-natural materials can not be broken down by the action of microbes and enzymes. These products are thus included in the category of non-biodegradable waste. 

Therefore, it can be said that clothes made from natural fabrics are biodegradable whereas clothes made from non-natural fabrics will not be degraded by the action of microbes or enzymes or other biological degrading agents. 

The presence or absence of biodegradability will greatly influence the time it is taken for a material to degrade. For example, cotton may degrade in about 5 months while this time may increase up to more than 500 years in the case of non-natural fabrics. 

Can clothes be recycled?

Recycling is the reusing of products to achieve better waste and resource management. The applications and processes of recycling are also important because the current waste generation has already crossed the given threshold. 

Some of the common materials which can be recycled include:

  • Paper
  • Plastic 
  • Glass
  • Metals
  • Batteries 
  • Electronics

As a general rule of thumb, most of the materials can be recycled including both biodegradable and non-biodegradable. However, since the impacts of non-biodegradable products are greater than biodegradable products, the recycling of non-biodegradable products is preferred. 

Recycling leads to a number of benefits that include:

  • Better waste management
  • Better resource management
  • The best alternative for non-biodegradable waste
  • Decreased use of raw materials
  • Decreased pressure on non-renewable resources
  • Economic advantages

In light of these benefits, it is important to ask whether clothes can be recycled or not. Clothes can be recycled. 

In fact, recycling is considered one of the best solutions to deal with non-biodegradable material because it leads to delayed effects of non-biodegradable waste on the environment. 

Clothes made from both natural and synthetic fabrics can be recycled which can be harnessed to achieve the benefits jotted down above. 

Conclusion

It is concluded that clothes are made from natural and non-natural fabrics. Clothes made from natural fabrics are biodegradable, whereas clothes made from non-natural fabrics are not biodegradable. 

Examples of natural fabric fibres may include cotton, wool, silk et cetera. Examples of non-natural fabric fibres may include viscose, rayon, and polyester. 

The presence or absence of biodegradability will greatly influence the time it is taken for a material to degrade. For example, cotton may degrade in about 5 months while this time may increase up to more than 500 years in the case of non-natural fabrics. 

Clothes made from both natural and synthetic fabrics can be recycled which can be harnessed to achieve the benefits such as better waste management, better resource management, economic edge, and reduced consumption of non-renewable resources. 

Frequently Asked Questions: Are clothes non-biodegradable?

Which is the most common natural fabric?

Cotton is regarded as the most commonly used fabric. It has four classes to cater to everyone’s needs. 

How can clothes be disposed of rightly?

The best way to deal with clothes is either to donate to the needy or to transport the clothes to recycling centres.

References

  • Tokiwa, Y., & Calabia, B. P. (2007). Biodegradability and biodegradation of polyesters. Journal of Polymers and the Environment, 15(4), 259-267.
  • Baffes, J. (2005). The “cotton problem”. The World Bank Research Observer, 20(1), 109-144.
  • Oosterhuis, D. M. (1990). Growth and development of a cotton plant. Nitrogen nutrition of cotton: Practical issues, 1-24.
  • Strand, E. A., Frei, K. M., Gleba, M., Mannering, U., Nosch, M. L., & Skals, I. (2010). Old textiles–new possibilities. European journal of archaeology, 13(2), 149-173.
  • Arshad, K., Skrifvars, M., Vivod, V., Valh, J., & Voncina, B. (2014). Biodegradation of natural textile materials in the soil. Tekstilec, 57(2), 118-132.

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