Is 100% cotton yarn biodegradable? (3 environmental risks of cotton yarn)

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

  • What is cotton yarn?
  • What is cotton?
  • What are the types of cotton yarn?
  • Why should cotton yarn be biodegradable?
  • What is biodegradability?
  • What are the types of waste based on biodegradability?
  • What are various examples of waste?
  • Is 100% cotton yarn biodegradable?

Is 100% cotton yarn biodegradable?

Yes, 100% cotton yarn is biodegradable. Cotton yarn is a plant-based material which contains cellulose. Cellulose is biodegradable and therefore, cotton yarn is also considered biodegradable. 

However, it does not necessarily mean that cotton yarn 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 yarn? 

Cotton yarn is a natural thread that is used to make clothes. Cotton is claimed to be one of the oldest textiles known to man. The applications of cotton as a fabric compete with its history. 

You may wonder what is the difference between cotton and cotton yarn. Cotton is the soft and fluffy fibre material that is grown on cotton plants. Whereas, cotton yarn is the tread which is knitted to make cotton products. 

Cotton has been used for centuries to make clothes. All types of clothing are made from cotton. It is regarded as a staple of clothing. It is imperative that every household has clothes that are made from cotton. 

Cotton yarn is derived from natural, plant-based materials. Since the source is natural, cotton is considered gentle to the skin as well as to the environment. 

Cotton yarn can be knitted to make clothes that are extremely soft, breathable, durable and give off a particular drape effect. That is why, it is believed that in the past, cotton was only reserved for the rich and the privileged.

However, today, cotton has become every household necessity. The factors responsible for this transition (luxury to necessity) are technology, innovation and good agricultural practices. 

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 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 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. 

Why should cotton yarn be biodegradable?

You might wonder why there is a need for cotton yarn 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?

What is biodegradability?

Biodegradability can be explained as a natural process through which microbes break down complex waste into simpler substances. This conversion is also facilitated by external conditions such as temperature or sunlight. 

The main driver of biodegradation is microbes. These microbes include bacteria, algae, fungi, protozoa, yeast, and decomposers. They break down the structures of complex waste so that the simple waste may become part of nature again. 

Biodegradability is nature’s way to ensure that there is no waste and that the waste produced is taken back into the system. It is because mother nature is aware that if there is waste, there will be complications and obstructions. 

To understand this, the article invited you to an analogy. Imagine that for some reason you are unable to dispose of waste in your home or office. The situation may be manageable for some days but not very long.

Now, imagine that you can not dispose of the waste for several hundred years. The first thought that you will get is that your home or office will become unlivable. The same is the case for biodegradability and the earth. 

Biodegradability is the earth’s dustbin and earth is our home. If there is no biodegradability, there is no waste disposal. This will, eventually, steal our home’ capacity to sustain life. Results? Mass extinction and environmental degradations. 

What are the types of waste based on biodegradability?

Biodegradability is the earth’s natural way to eliminate waste by making sure that it gets back to the system. However, there has been corruption in this naturality as well. 

Regarding biodegradability, there is a general understanding that natural materials and natural waste are biodegradable. This is because it coincides with the code of nature. The microbes have no difficulty in breaking down the structures of this type of waste. 

On the other hand, we have the type of waste which can not be degraded by the action of microbes. This type of waste is mostly considered man-made. That is because microbes are unable to degrade the inner structures of synthetic materials and as a result, this type of waste may persist for hundreds of years. 

Non-biodegradable waste is known to cause a lot of harm to nature and man, other than being non-biodegradable. There is an endless list of these effects but some prominent ones can be cited as examples. 

  • Greenhouse effect
  • Global warming
  • Deforestation
  • Soil leaching
  • Pollution
  • Soil erosion 
  • Destruction of habitats
  • Disruption of food chains
  • Species endangerment 
  • Loss of life 
  • Medical complications
  • Harm to the economy
  • Unforeseen and unprecedented climatic anomalies 
  • Pest & insect attacks 

These are some of the effects to illustrate why biodegradable waste is important and needed. 

What are the examples of biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste?

In this section, various examples of biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste will be covered to further our understanding of the concept and science of biodegradability. 

Biodegradable waste is that waste can be degraded by the action of microbes. This type of waste may degrade readily or may also take some months. As per some studies, biodegradable waste (like bio-plastics) may even take some years to degrade. Examples of biodegradable waste include: 

  • Food waste
  • Plant waste
  • Animal waste
  • Manure
  • Sewage 
  • Crop waste
  • Waste from slaughterhouse 
  • Natural fibres
  • Natural fabrics 
  • Semi-synthetic material obtained from plant or animal sources (like rayon fabric) 
  • Drywall mud 

Non-biodegradable waste, on the other hand, can not be degraded by the action of microbes. It is mainly because microbes are unable to break the structures of this type of waste. 

It is generally perceived that materials that are synthesised in the lab from petroleum or fossil fuels are not biodegradable. The tragedy is that with increased commercialisation and consumerism, more such waste is generated which leaves us with unprecedented and grave issues. 

Synthetic polymers are regarded as the most common non-biodegradable waste. Other examples may include: 

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

Is 100% cotton yarn biodegradable? (3 environmental risks of cotton yarn)

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 yarn 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.

However, unsustainable cotton production verged with the use of chemicals during cotton production along with the use of dyes/chemicals after cotton production may result in negative impacts on the environment. 

Conclusion

Cotton yarn is a plant-based material which contains cellulose. Cellulose is biodegradable and therefore, cotton yarn is also considered biodegradable. 

However, it does not necessarily mean that cotton yarn 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 yarn biodegradable?

Why is cotton yarn widely used?

Cotton yarn is widely used for its properties of light-weight, breathable and heat repulsion. It is also cost-efficient.

How long does cotton yarn take to degrade?

Cotton yarn may degrade in some weeks. The exact duration depends on external factors. 

References

  • Bevilacqua, M., Ciarapica, F. E., Mazzuto, G., & Paciarotti, C. (2014). Environmental analysis of a cotton yarn supply chain. Journal of Cleaner Production, 82, 154-165.
  • Krifa, M., & Ethridge, M. D. (2006). Compact spinning effect on cotton yarn quality: Interactions with fiber characteristics. Textile Research Journal, 76(5), 388-399.
  • 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.
  • Asaduzzaman, M. M., Hossain, F., Li, X., & Quan, H. (2016). A study on the effects of pre-treatment in dyeing properties of cotton fabric and impact on the environment. Journal of Textile Science & Engineering, 6(2).

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