Is dyed linen biodegradable? (9 steps of linen production)

In this article, the biodegradability of dyed linen will be deliberated. Other covered topics would be: 

  • What is linen?
  • What are the types of linen?
  • What are the applications of linen?
  • How is linen made?
  • What is biodegradability?
  • What is the difference between biodegradability and eco-friendliness?
  • Is dyed linen biodegradable?
  • Is dyed linen eco-friendly?
  • FAQs

Is dyed linen biodegradable?

Dyed linen is biodegradable if it is dyed from natural dyes. Linen dyed from synthetic dyes will still be biodegradable but the synthetic dyes are not biodegradable and pose several threats to life and the environment. 

Although linen is extensively used in apparel and homeware products, its production is still not eco-friendly. This rift will be bridged by using sustainable practices of production, use, and disposal. 

What is linen?

Linen is a textile fabric that is made from the stem of flax plants. The majority of the use of linen fabric is associated with homeware products. 

Linen has unique properties of being breathable and quick absorption of water (sweat) which makes linen fabric a decent choice in the summer season. 

Linen is also called flax fabric because it is derived from the stems of flax plants. China is the biggest producer of linen fabric. 

Flax plants belong to the family Linaceae which are grown in temperate regions of the world as a source of food and fibre plants. An example would be Linum usitatissimum. 

What are the types of linen fabric?

Every fabric has particular types with distinct features and filters on how it is made. Just like cotton, linen also has several types. These may be: 

  • Damask linen
  • Plain woven linen
  • Loosely woven linen
  • Sheeting linen

Among these, sheeting linen is used in the apparel industry to make clothes. This is because this type of linen is untextured, soft and easy to weave. 

Damask linen is very delicate and is used for embroidery purposes. Plain woven linen is used in the making of homeware products like various forms of towels. 

Lastly, we have loosely woven linen which is used to make diapers and sanitary napkins. This is because it gives properties of high absorbance but at the same time is the least durable. 

What are the applications of linen?

Based on the type of linen, there are various applications of linen that belong to different industries or domains. These domains may include:

  • Apparel applications 
  • Homeware products 
  • Industrial products 
  • Bedding products 

The applications and uses of linen date back several thousand years ago. Even 35,000 years ago, the applications of linen as a fabric were understood and employed. 

The properties that were found in linen including breathability, and the absorbance of moisture or sweat made linen a favourite choice of cloth fabric in many historical societies, such as the Egyptians. 

Even today, linen is extensively used in the apparel industry to make all kinds of clothing such as pants, shirts, trousers, blazers, and other variations of formal and informal clothing. 

Linen is famous for its use in homeware products where linen can be made into towels, napkins, and table clothes. 

Linen is also vastly used in the making of napkins, diapers and sanitary pads because of its high absorption but low durability. 

Linen comes in white colour naturally which is a perfect colour for summers as it does not absorb heat. Therefore, the properties of moisture absorption, low moisture retention, and low heat absorption make linen a perfect fit for summer clothing. 

However, one main factor that limits the production of linen and gives advantages to its counterparts such as cotton is that linen production is energy and resource exhaustive. A great amount of energy and resources have to be employed to make linen which steals the economic value of linen. 

Even back then, 35,000 years ago, linen fabric was mostly reserved to be used and worn by the royals. However, in Egyptian civilisation, linen fabric use was rather common. 

How is linen made?

Linen is made by following the 9 steps of production that are commonly practised. These steps include: 

  • Planting 
  • Growth 
  • Harvesting
  • Fibre separation 
  • Breaking 
  • Combing 
  • Spinning
  • Reeling
  • Drying 

These are the steps that are followed in chronological order to produce linen fabric. As mentioned, the production of linen is rather an energy and resource consumptive and this implies that it has a greater carbon footprint as compared to its counterparts (cotton et cetera). 

What is biodegradability?

Biodegradability can be explained as the ability to be degraded in nature so that complex substances can be converted into simpler substances so that they may become a part of nature. 

Biodegradability is the earth’s natural way to discard and dispose of. Microbes such as bacteria and other decomposers are the main drivers of this degradation process. 

If the natural process of biodegradation is not happening, then it means that wastes are produced and not disposed of. Imagine what would happen if all the waste of your home is kept inside and not thrown in the dust bin?

It will pollute your house from the inside, right? The same would happen if the natural process of biodegradation does not happen for some reason. However, this hypothetical metaphor does have some ground reality, unfortunately.

Not all the material produced is able to biodegrade in nature. Most man-made synthetic materials (such as polymers) do not gel well with the microbes’ ability to degrade and thus these substances remain in the environment causing unfathomable pollution and problems. 

With the human population swiftly advancing to cross the carrying capacity of the earth, the management of waste is becoming more difficult than ever. That is why the checklist of if any substance is biodegradable or not is of high importance because otherwise, there is no way out. 

To put things into perspective, take an example of non-biodegradable plastics. These plastics affect hundreds of species, endangering them. They also stem medical complications of all severities. The environmental impacts of plastics are also notoriously well known. 

What is the difference between biodegradability and eco-friendliness?

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. 

Is dyed linen biodegradable?

Based on the literature deliberated until now, we can make two assumptions: 

  • Naturally occurring substances are biodegradable
  • Linen is made from plants which are naturally occurring

In the light of these assumptions, it can be claimed that linen is biodegradable because it is sourced from plants that occur in nature. However, in this article, our topic is not simple linen but rather dyed linen. 

Other than linen, we also need to consider the dyes that are used to colour linen in various colours as linen comes in white colour only. 

In this regard, there are two streams of possibility. The dyes used to dye linen may be sourced from natural or non-natural sources. Dyes can be organic as well as inorganic. If natural dyes are used to colour linen, then dyed linen is biodegradable as a whole. 

Whereas, if artificial colours are used to dye linen (which are non-natural) then those colours would not degrade (although the linen would degrade by microbes). These dyes will enter the waste stream or natural ecosystems and will cause harm to life and the environment. 

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 

Is dyed linen eco-friendly?

Dyed linen may be biodegradable (dyed from natural dyes), but it does not mean that it is eco-friendly as well. For linen to be eco-friendly, it must be produced, used and disposed of in sustainable manners. 

We have already discussed that the production of linen is an energy exhaustive process. This energy is fossil-based which causes numerous environmental impacts such as global warming and deforestation. 

The production of flax plants also may involve the use of agrochemicals as it happens in the majority of the cases. These agrochemicals may pollute land and water and result in the deaths of fish while destroying aquatic ecosystems. 

If dyed linen is not disposed of properly, it causes numerous harms to the environment by entering the waste streams that can alter, exploit and disrupt natural ecosystems. 

Hence, it is proposed that dyed linen is not eco-friendly despite being biodegradable. This rift will be bridged by using sustainable practices of production, use, and disposal. 

Conclusion

It is concluded that dyed linen is biodegradable if it is dyed from natural dyes. Linen dyed from synthetic dyes will still be biodegradable but the synthetic dyes are not biodegradable and pose several threats to life and the environment. 

Although linen is extensively used in apparel and homeware products, its production is still not eco-friendly.   This rift will be bridged by using sustainable practices of production, use, and disposal. 

Frequently Asked Questions: Is dyed linen biodegradable?

Where is linen produced?

Linen is produced in China, Italy, Ireland, Belgium and the US. China is the biggest producer of linen. It is grown in temperate regions. 

Is linen better than cotton?

Although linen is apt for summers with good water absorbance, cotton is still more widely used due to its vast applications and easier production. 

Reference

  • Akin, D. E. (2013). Linen most useful: perspectives on structure, chemistry, and enzymes for retting flax. International Scholarly Research Notices, 2013.
  • Warden, A. J. (2013). The linen trade: Ancient and modern. Routledge.
  • Innocenti, F. D. (2003). Biodegradability and compostability. In Biodegradable polymers and plastics (pp. 33-45). Springer, Boston, MA.
  • Sewport. (August 01, 2022). What is Linen Fabric: Properties, How its Made and Where. Retrieved from: https://sewport.com/fabrics-directory/linen-fabric

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