Is cotton biodegradable?

The article will explain the biodegradability of cotton while also talking about the: 

  • Reusing
  • Recycling
  • Composting
  • Sustainability of cotton
  • How to discern between natural and non-natural cotton 

Is cotton biodegradable?

Cotton may be biodegradable if it is 100% pure and organic. Natural and organic cotton is made from natural fibres that are sourced from plants. This can be degraded by the action of microbes which is what biodegradation is. 

As can be assumed from the term, biodegradation is the breakdown caused by the action of microbes. This is an important parameter to ensure that there is no waste accumulation and build-up. 

However, with the rising consumerism, there is an increasing demand for inorganic and synthetic cotton which is not sourced from plants but chemicals from labs. This will not be degraded by the action of microbes. 

Therefore, to ensure a stance on the biodegradation of cotton, it is essential to make sure that the cotton is organic and natural. Also, no dyes or synthetic chemicals are used to make cotton textiles. In this case, the cotton fibres will degrade in about 5 months or so. 

However, if this is not the case, the cotton fibres will not degrade into materials that can become a part of nature again. 

Is cotton sustainable?

It is usually perceived that natural materials such as natural fibres are eco-friendly and sustainable and will not take a toll on the environment. While this may be true, it is not a necessary perception all the time. 

Therefore, let us assess how sustainable cotton or cotton can be. This can be segregated into brackets such as manufacture, processing, dyeing, and disposal. 

When it comes to manufacturing, it can be said that a huge amount of water is used to make cotton. Therefore, the production of cotton fibres does rely on substantial amounts of water resources. 

Further, it is necessary to ensure that there are no fertilisers or other chemicals used to make cotton fibres because otherwise, there will be negative and degradative consequences on the environment and the soil. 

The usability of cotton fibres also varies based on the consumers. It is important to make sure that the cotton fibres are dealt with care and necessary precautions so that there is no excessive burden on the resources. 

Lastly, disposal also matters a lot. Since natural cotton can be degraded by microbes or even composted, it is wise to say that disposing of natural cotton in regular trash cans would not be a sustainable option. 

To wrap things up, cotton fibres and fabrics can be eco-friendly and sustainable if:

  • Cotton is 100% natural and organic 
  • Cotton is made without the use of chemicals and fertilisers 
  • Cotton is used sustainably and dealt with care to avoid over-consumption of resources
  • Cotton is disposed of sustainably (if it is biodegradable, it is advisable to not dispose of it in regular trash cans) 
  • Cotton is not dyed and processed chemically 

If these points are kept duly in mind, then cotton can be called a sustainable fabric and can be way better than synthetic fibres such as polyester in terms of environmental gains and benefits. 

Can you compost cotton?

Many people wonder if cotton can be composted. The answer is yes. It can be composted if you are certain that what you have is natural and organic cotton. If you are unsure if cotton is non-natural, then it is best to go for other disposal options such as reuse or recycling.

The next big question is how to compost cotton or what are the ways through which cotton can be composted. For this, consider the following steps: 

When it comes to that, there are two options available:

  • To have your cotton composted in a composting facility 
  • To compost the cotton at your home 

In the first case, the process is very simple. Simply collect your cotton leftovers, add them with other compostable material and drop it off in a nearby composting facility. 

However, if there are no nearby composting facilities, you can also compost cotton at home by pursuing the following steps: 

  • Select a suitable place for composting 
  • The place should be a bit distant from your home but should also be accessible
  • Shred cotton fabrics into smaller pieces 
  • Remove all the non-compostable material such as buttons or zippers et cetera (usually made from plastic or metals) 
  • Make a heap of compostable material 
  • You may either do it openly or prefer a composting bin (which is usually preferred in the case of hot composting) 
  • While making the heap, be careful of the green-to-brown ratio. Green material means nitrogen-rich material such as leaves whereas brown material means carbon-rich material such as cardboard boxes
  • Make alternate layers of green and brown. After each duo, add a thin layer of soil. Keep up until you have 4 feet of the heap. 
  • Continuously mix (every 4-5 days) the heap and be sure to provide the right external conditions which include aeration, shade and appropriate temperature
  • Once the compost is ready, use it resourcefully and wisely 

Can you recycle cotton?

Recycling Another green way to dispose of cotton is to recycle it. This way also, you save the cotton from ending up in landfills. 

When cotton is recycled, it is modified to be reused as if it were new material. This is considered green because when cotton is recycled, there is no need to extract the raw materials which basically means the cutting of trees. 

Therefore, let us discuss what you can do to have your cotton recycled. 

  • Disposing of in recycling bins
  • Transporting the cotton to recycling facilities
  • Having the nearby recycling centres pick up your cotton and other recyclable material via appointment 

Can you reuse cotton?

Yes, cotton fabrics can also be reused and repurposed in a variety of ways to make sure that you have extracted the full juice before going towards the disposal options. Therefore, let us go through some of the ways through which you can reuse cotton. These include:

Donating or giving it to a loved one

Used cotton fabrics such as textile products do not necessarily have to be disposed of. You can also opt for greener options. For example, if your cotton clothes are in good quality and shape, you can consider giving the clothes to your loved ones or even donating them. 

In many cases, we discard cotton clothes because either we no longer like them or there are issues with the sizing. In these cases, you can opt for donations to make full use of it. 

Using old clothes for other purposes 

You can also reuse cotton clothes for other purposes such as use as rugs or cleaning clothes. This will not only save the environment but will also save some burden on your pocket. 


Another efficient way to reuse cotton products or fabrics is to have them recycled. This will make the products anew with very little consumption of energy and resources. 

This will also reduce the amount of cotton waste produced because when cotton is recycled, there will be no waste production. We have already discussed how to recycle cotton products in previous sections. 

How to discern between natural and non-natural cotton? (3 ways) 

It has been said time and again that only natural cotton can be degraded and used to make compost. However, the question still remains how can you, as a consumer, make sure that the cotton you have is natural and non-natural? 

There are simple ways to figure it out. There are three ways to discern between natural and non-natural cotton (otherwise known as poly-cotton). 

Fire test 

Natural cotton will be attracted to fire and will catch fire but polycotton will actually curl away from fire and will melt when exposed to fire. You can take a small portion of your cotton fabric and do this assessment to ensure what you have is natural or non-natural. 

Sheen test 

This is another way to see if what you have is natural cotton or non-natural since natural cotton will not have that much shine to it and rather will have a matt look. 


You can also tell the naturality of your fibre by focusing on the texture as natural cotton tends to be softer than non-natural cotton. Therefore, just have a look at the texture. If your fabric is rough in texture, this either means that it is non-natural or has been adulterated. 


It is concluded that cotton is biodegradable if it is natural and organic. If it is poly cotton, it would not be degraded which otherwise can happen in about 5 months. 

You also can reuse, recycle, and compost cotton fabrics. The priority order will be reusing, composting, and then recycling. However, if you are uncertain about the naturality of cotton, composting is not advised. 

The article also discussed some ways to discern between natural and poly cotton that included the shine test, texture test, and fire test. 


Cotton Works. Biodegradability of Cotton. Retrieved from:

Wickel, Janet. (June 26, 2020). How to Do a Fabric Burn Test to Identify Fibres? Retrieved from:

Is Cotton biodegradable? Retrieved from: