Is 100% cotton biodegradable? (7 steps of cotton production)

In this article, the biodegradability of 100% cotton will be explained. Other covered topics would be: 

  • What is cotton?
  • What is cotton classification?
  • How is cotton produced?
  • What is biodegradability?
  • What is the classification of waste based on biodegradability?
  • Why should cotton be biodegradable?
  • Is cotton biodegradable?
  • Is cotton eco-friendly?
  • FAQs

Is 100% cotton biodegradable?

100% cotton is indeed biodegradable because it is made of natural substances like cellulose. However, it does not necessarily mean that cotton is completely eco-friendly as well.

The use of agrochemicals, non-renewable sources of energy, and unsustainable farming practices create a rift between biodegradable and eco-friendly cotton which must be bridged by man. 

What is cotton?

Cotton is a soft and fluffy fibre material that grows around the seeds of cotton plants. It is termed a staple fibre which has its branches spread out extensively in the fashion and textile industry. 

Cotton will be found everywhere today. In today’s time, it has become an important necessity. Every wardrobe is incomplete without this soft and fluffy fibre material.

The composition of cotton is chiefly cellulose which gives the soft, fluffy texture to cotton along with its other properties. 100% cotton means that there is no impurity or mixing in cotton fabric. It is a pure material. 

As per history, the earliest cotton is dated back to India around 5 millennium BC whereas the commercial production of cotton is as early as the thirteenth century. The increased use and production of cotton as a staple fabric happened around the industrial era. 

With the advent of the industrial era, just like many other consumer products, cotton also began to be produced and manufactured on a large scale, which led the industry to resort to not-so-green alternatives to meet cotton demands. 

As per the production of cotton, it is usually produced in areas such as Pakistan, China, Turkey, Brazil, and Uzbekistan. 

What is cotton classification?

There are four types of cotton: 

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

Starting off with organic cotton, it is the type of cotton that is produced without the use of any harmful chemicals. The name organic implies eco-friendly. 

The other three types of cotton are made with the use of chemicals that are potentially harmful to the environment.

Among the remaining three, Pima cotton is the most sought out because it is the most premium cotton available to consumers. It is based in America. Egyptian cotton is similar to Pima cotton in terms of fabric quality and resistance. 

The most common cotton is upland cotton which is presumed to have taken over more than 90% of the consumer market. This cotton comes from areas such as Florida, Central America, and Mexico. 

How is cotton produced? (7 steps of cotton production) 

You must be wondering that cotton is just a material that is obtained from plants, then how does it wind up in our closets or fancy retailers? The process is explained below. 

Usually, a number of processes are done to convert cotton to cotton clothes. These processes are: 

  • Cotton picking
  • Cotton cleaning 
  • Compression and Storage 
  • Fibre formation via a carding machine 
  • Spinning 
  • Weaving 
  • Dyeing

These are some basic processes through which cotton travels from fields to retailers and eventually our closets. However, these processes may be varied depending on certain specificities. 

What is biodegradability?

Biodegradability can be explained as a process through which complex waste is broken down into simple waste. This conversion is brought about by the action of microbes. These microbes can be bacteria, fungi, algae, protozoa, and yeast. 

These microbes break down complex waste into simpler materials so that these simple materials may become a part of nature again. Therefore, it can be said that biodegradability is nature’s way to ensure that there is no waste accumulation. 

This is important because if there is waste accumulation, there will be dirt and pollution everywhere. Imagine if there is no dustbin in your house and you have no place to dispose of your waste. 

What do you think will happen? Your house will get dirty, right? The same is the case with our planet earth. Biodegradability can be stated as nature’s dustbin, and if there is no dustbin, there will be dirt and pollution. 

Now, proceeding with the analogy, consider that you are not able to dispose of waste from your house for a hundred years. You may assume that not being able to do so simply means that your house will become unlivable. 

The same is the case if there is no biodegradability. No biodegradability means that waste accumulated will persist for many hundred years and this will make our Earth unlivable. It will steal the Earth’s capacity to sustain and support life, pushing all the species towards the vicinity of extinction. 

What is the classification of waste based on biodegradability?

Based on biodegradability, waste can be categorised into two classes. These are: 

  • Biodegradable waste 
  • Non-biodegradable waste

Biodegradable waste is the waste that can be degraded by the action of microbes. Examples of this waste may be food waste, animal waste, plant waste, crop waste, agricultural waste, manure, sewage et cetera. 

This waste will be degraded in a short span of time. From some days to a few months. In some cases, however, biodegradable waste may also take up to 3 years to degrade. As it is seen in the case of bioplastics. 

The other type of waste is non-biodegradable waste. This waste can not be degraded by the action of microbes because microbes are unable to break down the structure of non-biodegradable waste. As a result, this waste may persist in the environment for as long as a thousand years. 

Examples of non-biodegradable waste are: 

  • Electronic waste
  • Plastics 
  • Polyvinyl Chloride
  • Nuclear waste
  • Hazardous waste
  • Chemical waste
  • Hospital waste 
  • Synthetic resins
  • Synthetic fibres
  • Dyneema 
  • PHA 
  • EVA

The problem is not just the accumulation of waste. This accumulated waste will also cause a multitude of problems to humanity and the environment. These may be: 

  • 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

The detrimental impacts of non-biodegradable are not just adhered to the environment. They also expand to many aspects of human health. Some of these are: 

  • Abnormality
  • Reproductive complications
  • Hormonal issues
  • Damage to foetus
  • Necrosis
  • Skin damage
  • Eye allergies
  • Organ defects
  • Cancer
  • Mutation
  • Psychological complication
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Neuro-toxicity
  • Neurological complications

That is why biodegradability is a very important concept in general. Now, we will talk specifically about the biodegradability of cotton. 

Why should cotton be biodegradable?

You might wonder why there is a need for cotton to be biodegradable. You might also stumble upon your perception of biodegradability with a touch of suspicion about whether that is correct or not. This section will answer all your questions.

Biodegradability is the process through which complex material is broken down into simpler material by the action of microbes and other driving agents such as atmospheric conditions. 

It is nature’s way of discarding waste and making sure that the waste produced does not cause any harm to life or the environment. 

Consider that for some reason you are not able to discard waste from your home. What do you think will happen? Your house will get polluted and dirty, right? The same is the case for biodegradability in nature. 

The above metaphor is also assertive enough on the question that why is biodegradability a matter of prime importance. If there is no biodegradability, then it implies that waste is not becoming a part of nature; rather is polluting the environment. 

If we link cotton production and biodegradability, the importance of biodegradability surges up tenfolds. The literature argues that the current cotton production stands at 25 million tons. Imagine if 25 million tons of cotton are not biodegraded?

Is 100% cotton biodegradable?

Since it has been established that cotton is an organic and natural material and is not synthesised in the lab. We have also explored only those materials are biodegradable which are naturally occurring. 

In the light of the above points, it can be concluded that 100% is indeed biodegradable. It will be degraded by the action of microbes and will not persist in the environment for a very long time like in the case of non-biodegradable products. 

Is 100% cotton safe for the environment?

Although cotton is usually biodegradable, it is known that just being biodegradable does not mean that something is safe for the environment. 

The production of cotton is linked to a plethora of detrimental impacts on the environment. These impacts mostly arise from the use of agrochemicals during the cotton production process. 

The tragedy is that when cotton is biodegraded, these chemicals sweep back into the environment leading to pollution and toxicity. 

The cultivation of cotton is also linked to the degradation of soil quality. One main driver of this is unsustainable demands of cotton worldwide which cause unsustainable pressure on the land to meet those demands. 

Cotton production is also linked to the problem of soil erosion leading to habitat destruction and other far-reaching consequences. 

The typical cotton production process involves the use of various fertilisers, pesticides and other agrochemicals. The use is sourced by extremely high demands of cotton all over the world. 

The use of these chemicals leads to water and soil quality deterioration. When these chemicals reach nearby water bodies, they impact the water quality and life within is also affected severely. These changes are then reciprocated at various levels of food chains.

The use of artificial or synthetic dyes also causes negative impacts on the environment and people. These synthetic dyes also cause many medical complications for humans too. 

Among the health risks caused by dyes are cancer (as dyes are carcinogenic), skin & eye irritation, psychological changes and fertility issues. 

Synthetic dyes deteriorate the water quality and lead to the loss of aquatic life. This loss is reciprocated at various levels of the food chain. 

Another main issue is the use of non-renewable sources of energy to make cotton which affects the world badly. Therefore, it can be summed up that although cotton is biodegradable, it has many milestones to cover to become truly eco-friendly. 

Conclusion 

It is concluded that 100% cotton is indeed biodegradable because it is made of natural substances like cellulose. 

However, it does not necessarily mean that cotton is completely eco-friendly as well. The use of agrochemicals, non-renewable sources of energy, and unsustainable farming practices create a rift between biodegradable and eco-friendly cotton which must be bridged by man. 

Frequently Asked Questions: Is 100% cotton biodegradable?

How long does it take for cotton to degrade?

It depends on many factors like purity and external conditions. In the case of 100% pure cotton, it is studied to take from one week to five months. 

Is cotton compostable?

Yes, pure cotton can be composted because of its organic nature. 

References

  • Baffes, J. (2005). The “cotton problem”. The World Bank Research Observer, 20(1), 109-144.
  • Smith, C. W., & Cothren, J. T. (Eds.). (1999). Cotton: origin, history, technology, and production (Vol. 4). John Wiley & Sons.
  • Huang, G., Huang, J. Q., Chen, X. Y., & Zhu, Y. X. (2021). Recent advances and future perspectives in cotton research. Annu. Rev. Plant Biol, 72, 437-462.
  • Li, L., Frey, M., & Browning, K. J. (2010). Biodegradability study on cotton and polyester fabrics. Journal of Engineered Fibers and fabrics, 5(4), 155892501000500406.

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