Is dyed cotton biodegradable? (7 steps of cotton production)


In this article, it shall be explored whether dyed cotton is biodegradable or not. Related topics shall also be shed light upon including: 

  • What is cotton?
  • What are the types of cotton?
  • How is cotton produced?
  • Why is the biodegradability of cotton important?
  • Is dyed cotton safe?
  • What are the impacts of dyed cotton on the environment and human health?
  • FAQs

Is dyed cotton biodegradable?

Yes, dyed cotton is biodegradable because it is made from plant-based material (cellulose). The dyeing of cotton can be done through natural and synthetic dyes.

Natural dyes are also made from plant-based sources like henna while synthetic dyes are made from cracking crude oil. 

Despite being biodegradable, cotton is linked with numerous health and environmental issues such as pollution, loss of aquatic life, skin and eye irritation, and cancer. 

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. 

Just have a look around your closet and chances are that you will find many clothes that would be made from cotton. 

The composition of cotton is chiefly cellulose which gives the soft, fluffy texture to cotton along with its other properties. 

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 usually is produced in areas such as Pakistan, China, Turkey, Brazil, and Uzbekistan. 

What are the types of cotton?

There are four types of cotton: 

  • Pima cotton 
  • Egyptian cotton
  • Upland cotton
  • Organic cotton 

Starting off 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 out 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. 

How does cotton journey from field to closets?

You must be wondering that cotton is just a material that is obtained from plants, then how does it wind up in our closets or fancy retailers. The process is explained below. 

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. 

Why should cotton be biodegradable?

You might wonder why there is a need for cotton to be biodegradable? You might also stumble upon your perception of biodegradability with a touch of suspicion 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 is not biodegraded?

Is dyed cotton biodegradable?

After giving insights to a basic introduction to what cotton is, where it is grown and how much, and what is the link of cotton to biodegradability; let us move to our major question: is dyed cotton biodegradable. 

The answer is yes. Dyed cotton or cotton in general is made from plant-based material (cellulose) which can be easily broken down by microbes to become a part of nature again. 

However, the answer is not that simple. The dyeing of cotton can be done through two approaches. One is by the use of natural or organic dyes; whereas, the other is by the use of synthetic dyes. 

Organic dyes, as the name suggests, come from organic and natural sources. As these dyes are also made from nature, dyed cotton (made from organic dyes) is biodegradable and poses lesser threats to the environment. 

These natural dyes are obtained from plants and animal sources. For example, extracting dyes from roots, bark, leaves, and wood. Further examples are given: 

  • Turmeric 
  • Jack fruits 
  • Onion 
  • Hina
  • Indigo 
  • Tea waste
  • Safflower 
  • Sappan wood
  • Saffron 
  • Mineral sources 


On the other hand, synthetic dyes are made by cracking crude oil. These may be explained as benzene derivatives that may also contain chromophore or auxochrome. 

 Examples of synthetic dyes may include: 

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

Does biodegradable mean eco-friendly?

It has now been established that dyed cotton is biodegradable because it is made from naturally occurring substances such as cellulose. However, the next big question that has to be dealt with is does biodegradable mean that something is environmentally friendly too?

The answer is no. Being biodegradable does not ensure that the material will cause no harm to life or the environment. This is because biodegradability is just one of many factors that need to be check-listed before making a product eco-friendly. 

Consider the case of biodegradable plastic. Although biodegradable plastic can be degraded by nature in some months to a few years, it still poses threats to the environment because of the way it is used and disposed of. 

If biodegradable plastic is disposed of in an open dump instead of a controlled landfill environment, it may take up to more than 3 years for it to degrade fully. 

During this time, it poses threats to life and the environment as some animals like fish may still consume it leading to choking or dying. 

Another example that will assert that biodegradable does not ensure environmental safety can be that of drywall mud. Drywall mud is a paste that is made from gypsum and asbestos and is used to give strength and structure to drywalls. 

Drywall mud is also biodegradable but the degradation of drywall mud results in the release of toxic gases like sulphur dioxide and hydrogen sulphide. 

If the discarding of drywall mud is not done properly and under a controlled environment, it will cause serious problems to humans and the environment. 

What is the impact of dyed cotton on the environment?

Although dyed cotton is usually biodegradable, we have seen that just being biodegradable does not mean that something is safe for the environment. 

Unfortunately, the cotton case is similar to the examples covered in the previous section. This section will cover the various negative impacts on the environment which are caused by cotton production and cotton use. 

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 agro-chemicals. 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. 

Conclusion 

It is concluded that dyed cotton is, generally, biodegradable. Cotton is made from plant-based material (cellulose) whereas the dyes used to colour cotton may be natural or synthetic. 

Natural dyes are obtained from plant sources like henna or saffron whereas synthetic dyes are made from cracking petroleum. 

Even though dyes cotton is biodegradable, it causes a variety of risks to health and the environment which have been discussed in the sections of the article.

Frequently Asked Questions: Is dyed cotton biodegradable?

How long does it take for cotton to degrade?

As per research, it usually takes around 5 months for cotton to degrade since it contains naturally occurring material (cellulose). 

How to use cotton sustainably?

You can use cotton sustainably by only buying organic cotton since it will not lead to the use of any harmful agrochemicals. 

Which dye is more used?

Synthetic dyes are used more than natural because they are more economical and provide more promising results as compared to natural dyes.

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.

 

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