Is 100% cotton recyclable? 

Cotton is a natural fiber that is a staple in the textile industry. Cotton fibers have been used to make clothes for hundreds of years. Recently, there’s been an uptick in the popularity of 100% cotton clothing.

The popularity of organically grown 100% cotton clothes is mainly due to the detrimental effects of synthetic fibers like polyester. Recently, conscious consumerism is all the rage; and for good reason. We are all more or less aware of the catastrophic effects of fossil fuel products on the environment. 

As more and more fashion companies pledge to adopt more eco-friendly garments, the use of 100% cotton is steadily increasing. And with an increase in cotton fabric used, the inevitable question arises. Is 100% cotton recyclable?

Let me go through the pros and cons of cotton recycling, and then discuss the impacts increased cotton fiber usage has on the fashion industry. 

Can we recycle 100% cotton clothes? 

Yes, it’s recyclable. However, the rate of recycling cotton clothes is very low in most countries. There are only a select few drop-off points in certain cities where you can give your clothes for recycling. 

These dropoff points are mostly in European cities. The rest of the world is yet to regularize cotton recycling. 

The downside of cotton recycling is that the mechanical recycling process lessens the quality of the fiber, which means cotton clothes can usually be recycled once.

What is 100% cotton and why is it making a rise? 

100% cotton, as the name suggests is clothing made entirely of natural cotton fibers. 

Cotton farming is very popular in the Americas as well as South and Southeast Asia. 

Many small farms, as well as industrial farms, are in the business of producing cotton. 

There is a significant difference in eco-friendliness between organically grown and conventionally grown cotton. Research shows that organic farming is the most sustainable with the least water usage and soil erosion. 

Cotton is a more eco-friendly fiber than synthetic fibers like polyester. Synthetic fibers are known to have a high carbon footprint. Even though around 50% of the polyester is made from recycled PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) bottles, the amount of energy, water, and carbon required to make these fibers are higher than the cost of natural cotton. 

Composite cloths made of polyester and cotton are very popular in the fashion industry, however, polyester when washed releases microplastic into the water which washes into the wastewater and eventually mixes into the waterways. These microplastics are impossible to remove from the water, aquatic life consumes these plastics and via them, it moves further up the food chain and eventually ends up in our systems. 

Scientists still are not sure whether these microplastics are going to have detrimental effects on our health or not. We do know one thing for sure, it is not natural to have plastic in our system. Waiting around for research to come out proving the effects of microplastics on our health is a fool’s game. 

We must not and should not take the issue of microplastics lightly. Which is a key reason why cotton has gained popularity both among companies and consumers. 

So, how do we do it? 

Cotton recycling is a mechanical process, which can be divided into 3 main steps. Sorting, shredding, and respinning into fibers. 

Clothes are first sorted based on color, then they are shredded into yarn and lastly fiber. These fibers are then respun back into threads.

These respun threads do not maintain the same quality as the original. The mechanical stress exerted on it during shredding lessens the durability, texture, and elasticity of these threads. Nevertheless, there is an array of uses recycled cotton can be applied to. 

Cotton cloth waste are of primarily two types, 

  • Pre-consumer-  the small, irregular pieces of cloth that are left behind in garment factories when cutting out clothes for stitching. 
  • Post-consumer- these are used garments that are given away by consumers at the end of their uses.

    Most pre-consumer cotton fabric is turned back into cloths as they maintain the least damage pre-recycling.

Post-consumer recycling on the other hand is usually not recycled back into clothes by the fashion industry.  These fabrics are generally not respun into thread, instead, these are shredded and used as insulation, pillow stuffings, mop heads, and many other cheaper quality products. 

Why recycle Cotton? 

Cotton is a natural fabric that’s biodegradable and compostable, it has a much lower carbon footprint than synthetically made fibers. So then, why bother recycling it? The quality of the fiber is not as good as the original anyways. 

The reason why cotton needs to be recycled is to keep it from landfills. The global fashion industry generates an enormous contribution to waste in landfills. In 2014, around 92 million tons of garment waste ended up in landfills globally. 

These garments can take around 100 years to decompose. 

Besides generating an enormous amount of waste in the landfills, cotton fabrics also require an incredible amount of water to produce. The cost of growing cotton and manufacturing cotton fabric is a labor-intensive process with which, even though is a better alternative than most, remains costly. 

Perhaps the best incentive to start recycling cotton fabric is monetary gain. Recycling post-consumer cotton to lesser quality products keeps virgin cotton from being used to make these items. 

However, recent reports show that recycling pre-consumer cotton can immensely benefit the garment industry. The Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporter’s Association (BGMEA), reports that up to $500 million can be saved if pre-consumer cotton is recycled. 

Bangladesh is one of the largest garments manufacturers in the world, they import most raw materials for garments from other countries like China and India. Recycling 100% of the pre-consumer cotton can reduce imports by 15%. 

This is the latest attempt to bring the garment industry in Bangladesh into a circular fashion model, as opposed to the linear model it follows at the moment. 

Is 100% cotton the future? 

All-natural cotton fabric is making a comeback, people are more aware of the environmental detriminant the fossil fuel industry poses to our lands and oceans. Synthetic fibres like polyester rule the market at the moment due to it’s cost-effective, and durable properties. 

However, companies are beginning to respond to the shift in consumer preference, which is a start. 

However, it is extremely important to remember that recycling cotton is not the be-all-end-all of the global garment waste problem. True sustainability would be achieved when both the fashion industry and the consumers realize that the best solution is to simply produce more durable textiles and buy less.

Instead of throwing old jeans into the trash or even the recycle bin consider donating them. There are programs in many cities that take old jeans, fix them up and either donate or sell them in developing nations. 

It is indeed a fact that textiles cannot be endlessly reused, they will eventually accrue enough damage to be unusable. This is the point where it should be considered for recycling. 

Until then, donate, repurpose, or simply sell to minimize garment waste.

While donating, though, keep in mind that it’s not simply a dumping ground for all your old clothes. Many charities complain about receiving an exuberant amount of unusable garments from donation bins. 

All these garments end up in landfills, so be very mindful. Most charities specify what types of garments are required, so it shouldn’t be an issue. 

Overall, cotton recycling should be the final step in a cotton fabric’s lifecycle. Cotton cannot be endlessly recycled and in most cases only can be recycled once so keep that in mind the next time you’re browsing H&M for a new t-shirt. 

Conclusion: 

As more and more fashion companies pledge to adopt more eco-friendly garments, the use of 100% cotton is steadily increasing. And with an increase in cotton fabric used, the inevitable question arises. Is 100% cotton recyclable?

I went through the pros and cons of cotton recycling, and then discussed the impacts increased cotton fiber usage has on the fashion industry. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs): Is 100% recyclable? 

Can 100 cotton fabrics be recycled? 

Yes, they can. However, the resulting product is of lesser quality and cotton can only be recycled once in most cases. 

What can you do with old cotton fabric?

The first thing you should do is to repurpose it, if that’s not an option see if it’s donating. If these options fail then recycle them. 

What are the disadvantages of recycled cotton?

The main disadvantage is that recycled cotton is more expensive than virgin cotton despite being of lower quality. This is the biggest deterrent for cotton recycling. A cheaper alternative or a shift in market demand is needed to make recycled cotton more attractive to buyers and cheapen its production costs. 

Can cotton be recycled more than once?

Not in most cases. The shredding process as well as the wear-and-tear of post-consumer cotton makes them unsuitable to be recycled multiple times. This is why it’s extremely important to reuse and repurpose our clothes for as long as possible. 

What kind of waste is cotton? 

Cotton is a non-toxic natural fiber that is biodegradable. Cotton waste in the garment industry is referred to as cotton textile waste which incorporates cotton fabric of different thread counts or fiber types. 

Is 100% cotton environmentally friendly? 

Yes, compared to most synthetic fibers and many natural fibers, cotton fiber is environmentally friendly. Especially organically grown cotton is better for the environment. 

References: 

  1. In a Nutshell: Cotton is Renewable, Recyclable, and 100% Biodegradable  | ICRA. (2022). Retrieved 5 January 2022, from http://www.icracotton.org/posts/in-a-nutshell-cotton-is-renewable-recyclable-and-100-biodegradable
  2. Sweden reveals the world’s first garment made entirely from recycled cotton. (2022). Retrieved 5 January 2022, from https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/sustainable-fashion-blog/sweden-recycled-cotton-technology-fashion-composting
  3. The Truth About Recycled Cotton Fabrics. (2022). Retrieved 5 January 2022, from https://www.panaprium.com/blogs/i/recycled-cotton-fabrics
  4. Recycled Cotton | CottonWorks™. (2022). Retrieved 5 January 2022, from https://www.cottonworks.com/en/topics/sustainability/cotton-sustainability/recycled-cotton/
  5. (2022). Retrieved 5 January 2022, from https://citizensustainable.com/cotton-recyclable/
  6. How to Dispose of Cotton. (2022). Retrieved 5 January 2022, from https://homeguides.sfgate.com/dispose-cotton-79249.html
  7. Recycling 100% cotton waste could save Bangladesh half a billion USD on cotton imports — GLOBAL FASHION AGENDA. (2022). Retrieved 5 January 2022, from https://www.globalfashionagenda.com/recycling-100-cotton-waste-could-save-bangladesh-half-a-billion-usd-on-cotton-imports/
  8. Organic Cotton vs. Recycled Cotton. (2022). Retrieved 5 January 2022, from https://gabrielfariasiribarren.com/en/organic-cotton-vs-recycled-cotton/
  9. WO2011077446A1 – Process for recycling cotton fabrics – Google Patents. (2022). Retrieved 5 January 2022, from https://patents.google.com/patent/WO2011077446A1/en
  10. Methods and technologies for textile wastes recycling. (2022). Retrieved 5 January 2022, from https://www.textiletoday.com.bd/recycling-textile-wastes/ 

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