If your shirt is 50% cotton and 50% polyester then which part of it is biodegradable? 

In this article, it shall be known which between cotton and polyester are biodegradable. Other covered aspects will be: 

  • What is cotton?
  • What is the environmental impact of cotton?
  • What is polyester?
  • What is the environmental impact of polyester?
  • What is biodegradation?
  • Which is biodegradable between cotton and polyester?
  • FAQs

If your shirt is 50% cotton and 50% polyester then which part of it is biodegradable?

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

Usually, natural materials may be degraded readily whereas non-natural materials are not usually degraded by the action of microbes. 

Cotton is a natural fabric whereas polyester is a non-natural fabric fibre. Therefore, the cotton part of the shirt will be degraded whereas the polyester part will not be degraded. Polyester may take more than 500 years to degrade. Whereas, cotton may degrade in about 5 months. 

What is cotton?

Cotton is the most commonly used fabric fibre in the world. Today most apparel products are made from cotton which is largely because of the characteristics of cotton that deliver good quality at an even greater price. 

However, the use of cotton is not only widespread in these times. Cotton has been in use for many centuries. The properties of cotton such as natural, lightweight, absorbent, and heat repulsion led to the increased use of cotton as a fabric as early as 5000 BC. 

The use of cotton for apparel has been found in many ancient civilisations such as the Indus and the Egyptians. It is even claimed that back then, the use of cotton was only reserved for royalty and the privileged class. 

However, these days, the situation is very different. Everyone uses cotton for clothing because it is reasonable as well as of good utility. 

There are various types of cotton. Each type is of varied quality and pricing. That is why, everyone, from rich to poor can afford cotton these days. 

You may wonder what is the difference between simple and bleached cotton. In other words, why is cotton bleached?

Cotton is bleached to obtain the pure white colour of the fabric and to remove any impurity present which may lead to discolouration or the presence of unwanted colours. 

The most common bleaching agent used for cotton is hydrogen peroxide. Other details regarding the bleaching of cotton will be detailed in the next sections. 

Cotton can be classified into several categories. This is to cater to all the needs of cotton clothing. Cotton is worn by every person. From beggars to riches. Therefore, there are several types of cotton found.

These are: 

  • Pima cotton 
  • Egyptian cotton
  • Upland cotton
  • Organic cotton 

Pima cotton is the most premium of all and is the most expensive as well. It is usually reserved for the privileged class. 

Whereas, upland cotton is regarded as the most common cotton which is worn by more than 90% of the people. 

Organic cotton coheres with the interests of environmentalists because it is made and produced in line with environmental concerns. 

Organic cotton is regarded as organic because it excludes the use of harmful chemicals and fertilisers which affect the planet very negatively. 

What is the environmental impact of cotton?

It is often perceived that since cotton is derived from natural plants, it will not have any great impact on the environment. However, this statement is far from reality. The reason is that every consumer product does have some impact on the environment and life, be it small or large. 

This section will discuss the environmental impacts that are associated with cotton use and cotton production. 

First, we have the issue of waste generation. It is estimated that the current waste generation is at 2 billion tons. This means that every person generates more than 3 to 5 kgs of waste per day. 

If there is more waste generated, it will be difficult for authorities to manage the waste and segregate it from the environment. It may lead to pollution and toxicity. 

Since cotton is a staple fabric, it is also imperative that its increased use will also lead to the generation of increased waste. This will cause problems for man and the environment. 

Another impact of cotton on the environment is the use of agrochemicals in the growth and production of cotton fabric. 

There is an increased need for cotton fabric which gets stronger day by day. To meet these demands, cotton production is sped up and facilitated by the use of various agrochemicals like fertilisers and pesticides. 

These agrochemicals, although delivering good utility, are bad for the environment. These chemicals may leach into the soil and water bodies, wherein, may cause pollution and degradation. 

The aquatic life is also affected by these agrochemicals and there is damage to the soil quality and fertility as well. 

The production of cotton is also done at the expense of various chemicals and dyes. These dyes may also pollute water bodies, affecting life and the environment. 

The effects of these dyes may also reciprocate to humans in the form of skin allergies, mutations, cardiovascular problems, developmental issues et cetera. 

What is polyester? (5 steps to make polyester) 

Polyester is a type or example of synthetic fabric fibre. Usually, when it comes to textile fabrics, there are two polarities that are observed. 

One is the usage of natural fabric fibres and the other is the usage of non-natural fabric fibres. Cotton is an example of natural fabric fibre and details about cotton have been provided in the previous section of the article. 

This section will explain the polyester fabric which is non-natural. By non-natural, it means that polyester fabric does not grow on earth but is made in the labs by the use of products derived from fossil fuels. 

The use of fossil fuels in the making of polyester fabric implies that polyester fabric will have lasting impacts on the environment because it is made from products derived from fossil fuels. 

This will lead to the emissions of GHGs and also environmental anomalies such as global warming or unprecedented weather patterns. 

There are usually 5 steps that are involved in the making of polyester fabric. These steps include: 

  • Monomer creation 
  • Polymer creation 
  • Extrusion 
  • Spinning 
  • Finishing 

Polyester may be used for a variety of applications. In some cases, it can also be used in combination with other textile fabrics such as cotton or wool to improve the utilitarian value of polyester fabric. 

Another stood-out application of polyester is being used in homeware products. There is a type of polyester fabric which is called microfibre. This has gained popularity in a number of home and kitchen-related materials like pillows, towels, rugs, curtains et cetera. 

Polyester can also be used in industrial products such as bottles, LCD displays, tarps et cetera. This is primarily because the material (PET) that is used to make polyester is also used in a multitude of applications like plastic bottles et cetera. 

What is the environmental impact of polyester?

As polyester is a synthetic fabric, it is made from petroleum-derived products. The making of these products is done at the cost of the release of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, ethylene et cetera. 

This leads to countless other environmental anomalies and problems because there is a profuse intensity of coherence and interconnection between various aspects of the earth. The other problems rendered by polyester may include: 

  • Rising sea levels
  • Soil erosion
  • Deforestation
  • Disruption of ecosystems 
  • Pollution
  • Psychological impacts
  • Ozone depletion 
  • Skin & eyes diseases
  • Global warming
  • Loss of life
  • Species endangerment
  • Unprecedented weather patterns
  • Pollution
  • Disruption of ecosystems 
  • Infiltrations into the food chains 
  • Leaching
  • Eutrophication

What is biodegradation?

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. 

There are a lot of known impacts of non-biodegradable waste which may include: 

  • Waste accumulation 
  • Ozone depletion 
  • GHG emission
  • Global warming 
  • Soil erosion
  • Deforestation 
  • Destruction of habitats 
  • Loss of life
  • Disruption of ecosystem 
  • Infiltration into the food chains

It is also argued that the effects of non-biodegradable waste are not just limited to the environment but are also expanded to life and human health. Below are some of the common negative impacts of non-biodegradable waste on life and human health:

  • Organ damage
  • Hormone disruption 
  • Lung dysfunction 
  • Cancer
  • Developmental issues
  • Neuro Complications 
  • Necrosis 
  • Damage to the foetus 
  • Behavioural issues and complications 

Which is biodegradable between cotton and polyester?

It can be said that since cotton is derived from nature, the microbes and enzymes will be able to degrade the structure of microbes. In light of it, it can be said that cotton is biodegradable.

Polyester, on the other hand, is derived from petroleum-based products and synthesised in the lab. It is not biodegradable. 

Therefore, the cotton part of the shirt will be degraded whereas the polyester part will not be degraded. Polyester may take more than 500 years to degrade. 

Conclusion

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

Usually, natural materials may be degraded readily whereas non-natural materials are not usually degraded by the action of microbes. 

Cotton is a natural fabric whereas polyester is a non-natural fabric fibre. Therefore, the cotton part of the shirt will be degraded whereas the polyester part will not be degraded. Polyester may take more than 500 years to degrade. Whereas, cotton may degrade in about 5 months. 

Frequently Asked Questions: If your shirt is 50% cotton and 50% polyester then which part of it is biodegradable?

Why are shirts made in combination?

Shirts are made in combination to achieve the combined effect while also improving the cost-effectiveness and utilitarian value of products. 

How much time does cotton take to degrade?

Cotton may take around 5 months to degrade. It is very less compared to polyester which may require more than 500 years. 

References

  • Jaffe, M., Easts, A. J., & Feng, X. (2020). Polyester fibers. In Thermal Analysis of Textiles and Fibers (pp. 133-149). Woodhead Publishing.
  • Saleh, H. E. D. M. (Ed.). (2012). Polyester. BoD–Books on Demand.
  • 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.
  • Smith, C. W., & Cothren, J. T. (Eds.). (1999). Cotton: origin, history, technology, and production (Vol. 4). John Wiley & Sons.

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