Is bleached cotton biodegradable? (5 bleaching agents used to bleach cotton) 

In this article, the biodegradability of bleached cotton will be shed light upon. Other covered aspects will be: 

  • What is bleached cotton?
  • How is cotton produced?
  • Why is cotton bleached?
  • What is the environmental impact of bleached cotton?
  • What is biodegradability?
  • Is bleached cotton biodegradable?
  • FAQs

Is bleached cotton biodegradable?

Yes, bleached cotton is indeed biodegradable. Since the source of bleached cotton is natural (cotton plants) while the bleaching agents used are also eco-friendly, the microbes have no difficulty in degrading bleached cotton. 

However, despite being biodegradable, bleached cotton does have some impacts on the environment because its use and manufacture are associated with the involvement of artificial dyes and agrochemicals. Further, excessive cotton use also leads to greater waste generation.

What is bleached cotton?

In order to better assess the biodegradability of bleached cotton, it is important to know what bleached cotton is, how it is made, and why bleaching is required. 

These aspects will help us better understand the concept at hand and build a strong stance on the biodegradability of bleached 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, light-weight, 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 the 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. 

How is cotton produced?

In this section, details will be discussed regarding the production process of cotton because it will enable us better to know what steps are involved to make cotton and what are the environmental impacts of those steps. 

The overall production process of bleached cotton can be summarised into the following key points:

  • Defoliation
  • Harvesting
  • Separation
  • Carding
  • Spinning
  • Dyeing 
  • Weaving 

These are the general steps that are adopted to produce cotton. The first step is the removal of leaves from cotton plants. This is the first step of purification and separation. 

The next step involves further purification which is done by mechanical force. Machines are used to convert cotton into cotton bales while also removing impurities. 

The cotton is then further separated from dirt and trash by the use of either mechanical force or chemical force. 

The cotton fibres are then converted to long strands and this process is referred to as carding. This is followed by spinning and dyeing. 

This part of the process makes excessive use of chemicals and dyes. This may also be the part where cotton is bleached to obtain the whiteness of the fabric. 

Common examples of dyes may be: 

  • Fast green
  • Picric acid
  • Orange G.
  • Oil red O. 
  • Eosin Y. 
  • Light Green SF. 
  • Tyrian Purple 
  • Madder red 

The last process is the final weaving of cotton into particular products such as t-shirts, bed sheets et cetera. 

Why is cotton bleached? (5 bleaching agents used to bleach cotton) 

This section of the article will deal with the bleaching of cotton and why it is done. The primary function of bleaching cotton is to obtain the pure whiteness of cotton fabric. 

This is important because if cotton will be in pure white, it will be better off in delivering the qualities and specificities of cotton fabric. For example, cotton is well known for heat repulsion and one main reason behind it is the white colour of cotton because it repels heat. If cotton is not in pure white colour, then this ability will be slightly impaired. 

Other applications of bleaching may include:

  • Better pre-treatment 
  • Better removal of impurity and dirt
  • Increased absorbency 

You may wonder what materials are used for the bleaching process. There are many options available that can be opted to bleach cotton. Examples of bleaching materials for cotton are: 

  • Chlorine 
  • Caustic Soda
  • Sodium Perborate 
  • Various enzymes
  • Hydrogen peroxide 

However, it is argued that hydrogen peroxide is the most common bleaching agent used to bleach cotton. More than 90% of cotton is bleached by the use of hydrogen peroxide. 

The process of bleaching is also dependent on various factors and specificities. These may include:

  • Time
  • Temperature
  • pH
  • Concentration of alkali 
  • The concentration of hydrogen peroxide
  • Nature of cotton (type of cotton)
  • Purity of cotton
  • Water hardness
  • Desired bleaching effect

All these factors play an important role in determining the overall success of the bleaching process. Regardless of these, the overall function of bleaching of cotton is to make sure that the white colour of cotton is intact and without any impurity. 

You may also wonder if these bleaching agents have any effect on the environment or not. It may be stated that natural bleaching agents like hydrogen peroxide are generally considered eco-friendly and do not have any great impact on the environment. 

It is plausible to assume that since hydrogen peroxide occurs in nature, it is also biodegradable other than being eco-friendly. 

What is the environmental impact of bleached 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 deliver 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 biodegradability?

Biodegradability can be explained as a process in which complex waste is broken down into simpler waste so that it may become a part of nature again. 

Biodegradability is important because if waste is not broken down, it will accumulate and will pollute our environment. 

These effects will also be reciprocated in life and human health. Therefore, it is incumbent to ensure that waste does not stay for long because it will lead to complications and obstructions. 

You may wonder what are the factors and agents responsible for the process of biodegradation. The most important agent for biodegradation is microbes. These microbes may include bacteria, fungi, algae, decomposers, protozoa, and yeast. 

Other than these microbes, there are external agents that also play an important role in the biodegradation process. These agents may be temperature, pressure, humidity, aeration, compaction, and sunlight. 

You may wonder how much time it takes for the process of biodegradation to complete. To understand the answer better, you need to know the various types of waste that are classified based on biodegradation. 

Is bleached cotton biodegradable?

Based on the discussions and insights presented till now, it can be stated that bleached cotton is indeed biodegradable because it is made from cotton plants. 

Since the source of bleached cotton is natural (cotton plants) while the bleaching agents used are also eco-friendly, the microbes have no difficulty in degrading bleached cotton. 

However, despite being biodegradable, bleached cotton does have some impacts on the environment because its use and manufacture are associated with the involvement of artificial dyes and agrochemicals. Further, excessive cotton use also leads to greater waste generation. 

Conclusion 

It can be concluded that bleached cotton is indeed biodegradable because it is made from natural plant-based materials. However, it may have some environmental impacts, as discussed in the article. 

Frequently Asked Questions: Is bleached cotton biodegradable?

Why is cotton bleached?

Cotton is bleached to remove impurities, increase absorbency, and obtain the white colour of cotton fabric. 

Where is cotton most produced?

Cotton is mostly produced in India, China, the US, and Pakistan. 

What is the most common bleaching agent?

Hydrogen peroxide is the most common bleaching agent used to bleach cotton. 

References

  • Baffes, J. (2005). The “cotton problem”. The World Bank Research Observer, 20(1), 109-144.
  • Basra, A. S., & Malik, C. P. (1984). Development of the cotton fiber. In International review of cytology (Vol. 89, pp. 65-113). Academic Press.
  • Gupta, V. K. (2019). Fundamentals of natural dyes and its application on textile substrates. Chemistry and technology of natural and synthetic dyes and pigments, 2019.
  • Yaseen, D. A., & Scholz, M. (2019). Textile dye wastewater characteristics and constituents of synthetic effluents: a critical review. International journal of environmental science and technology, 16(2), 1193-1226.
  • Li, L., Frey, M., & Browning, K. J. (2010). Biodegradability study on cotton and polyester fabrics. Journal of Engineered Fibers and fabrics, 5(4), 155892501000500406.
  • Abdul, S. B., & Narendra, G. (2013). Accelerated bleaching of cotton material with hydrogen peroxide. Journal of Textile Science & Engineering, 3(4), 1000140.

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