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

In this article, the biodegradability of cotton wool will be put scrutinised. Other covered topics would be: 

  • What is cotton wool?
  • What are the uses of cotton wool?
  • Does cotton wool contain wool?
  • What is the history of cotton wool?
  • How is cotton produced?
  • What is biodegradability?
  • Is 100% cotton wool biodegradable?
  • Is 100% cotton wool eco-friendly?
  • FAQs

Is 100% cotton wool biodegradable?

100% cotton wool 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 wool?

Do you remember the last time you had a wound? Maybe you could recall that a soft fluffy material was applied to your wound. That material is termed cotton wool.

Cotton wool can be explained as cotton in its raw and purest form. The word wool is attached to cotton wool because of its soft and fluffy properties. 

It is because of this soft and fluffy appearance of cotton wool that it is used in a number of applications such as bathing wounds or application of creams. 

Other widespread uses of cotton also include use as cotton balls, cotton rolls, cotton pads, and bandages. These uses and applications are because of the purity and softness of cotton wool. 

Owing to its purity and fluffy nature, cotton wool offers very high absorbance. To achieve further uses, cotton may also be used in blending with other fibres as well. 

What are the applications of cotton wool?

The purity, soft appearance, and high absorbance of cotton wool play an important role in the applications of cotton wool. Due to these unique properties, cotton wool is regarded as a staple in homes and hospitals.

Hospitals heavily rely on cotton wool in a wide range of applications that pivot around many domains and aspects. The most accepted use of cotton can be said to be in treating wounds and injuries. 

Cotton is extensively used in the treatment of wounds and injuries. Since it has high absorbance powers, it can be used to apply creams and other antiseptics like pyodine et cetera. 

This use is not only limited to hospitals but is also expanded to homes and even workplaces as well. Cotton bandages and cotton wool (cotton pads and swaps) are an important part of the first aid kit. 

The applications of cotton wool are not only limited to being used as bandages and swaps. There are countless uses of cotton wool as well. 

As per some studies, the applications and uses of cotton wool can be categorised into four classes or domains. These are explained below:

  • To be used as implantable products 
  • To be used as non-implantable products 
  • Can be used as extracorporeal products 
  • Can be used as hygiene products 

The current details explained mostly the applications of cotton as used in hygiene products. These applications, however, can be bracketed with many other conformities as well. 

Cotton may be used in non-implantable products. Examples of these products may include face masks, gloves and gowns. 

Cotton may also be used in implantable products that are incorporated inside the body. Examples of such products may include tampons.

The applications of cotton may also be bracketed to be used in extracorporeal products. These products can be used in medical procedures such as sponges. 

As stated, the majority of the uses and applications of cotton and cotton wool adhere to the medicinal and pharmaceutical industries. However, variance to this normality is also observed in some cases. 

Does cotton wool contain wool?

Given the name cotton wool, it can be guessed that cotton wool is a mixture of cotton and wool. Cotton is a fluffy material that is commonly used as a fabric. This fabric is obtained from the cotton plants. 

Similar to cotton, we have wool fabric which is obtained from animals like sheep et cetera. Wool is also a commonly used fabric that is mostly reserved for colder areas where it is regarded as a staple fabric. 

Cotton may be used in combination with other fabrics as well to achieve the desired qualities because cotton is an organic fabric and may be needed to mix with synthetic fabrics to make it more durable and economically feasible. 

Given this context and the fact that cotton may be blended with other fabrics as well, it is possible to confuse that cotton wool is actually a blend of cotton and wool. 

However, in reality, it is not the case. The term wool is used for cotton wool because of its fluffy and pure nature. The softness and high absorbance of this form of cotton make it eligible to be named cotton wool and therefore, there is no amount of wool in cotton wool, as it may normally be perceived. 

What is the history of cotton wool?

Cotton fibre has been around for many hundred years. As it is a natural fibre, it has been grown for many hundred years. The use of cotton as a wardrobe essential dates back to ancient times. 

For example, the Egyptians used to wear clothes made from cotton. One great reason for this choice was the weather because in Egypt, the weather used to be very hot and the physical properties of cotton like the reflectance of light (since it was white in colour) and moisture wicking properties led to its fervent use back then. 

The use of pure forms of cotton (cotton wool) for medicinal and pharmaceutical purposes has also been for many hundred years. However, back then it was not that safe because the cotton wool used was not sterilised. 

Therefore, its use to treat wounds and injuries had a risk of microbial infection that could further exacerbate the situation. However, with the intervention of bleached cotton wool, this issue was also rectified. 

This led to the widespread use of cotton wool in many aspects of medicinal applications without any chance of microbial infections. 

It was the result of these endeavours that cotton wool now is regarded as a staple in medicinal and pharmaceutical applications. First aid kits are incomplete without cotton pads and cotton swabs. It may also be used to deal with the sensitive skin of babies. 

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

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. 

Is 100% cotton wool 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 that are biodegradable which are naturally occurring. 

In the light of the above points, it can be concluded that 100% cotton wool 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 wool 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 wool 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 cotton wool take to degrade?

It may degrade in five months’ time. This duration may vary based on external conditions. 

What is the most common application of cotton wool?

The most common application of cotton wool is to be used to dress wounds and injuries. 

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.
  • Schmidt, D. (2008). The mystery of cotton-wool spots-a review of recent and historical descriptions. European journal of medical research, 13(6), 231.

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