‘Biodegradable’ is a term that is often used when talking about the textile industry from an environmentally conscious angle. If you want to make environmentally conscious fabric and fashion choices, it’s worth knowing a little more about biodegradable fabrics, the impact they have and why they’re a greener choice.
The term ‘biodegradable’ refers to the ability of a substance to decompose naturally via living organisms.
Not all fabrics are safely biodegradable as they are made with artificial and chemical components that do not get broken down by microorganisms easily.
Do not confuse biodegradable with the term “bio-based”. Bio-based fabrics may have been produced from naturally grown fibres, such as cotton, but are not always easily biodegradable after being manufactured into fabric and can also include synthetic fibres blended in. For example, the bio-based fishing line (a thicker version of the nylon used in fabrics) takes up to 600 years to decompose. This is due to the strong, complex bonds of polymers inside synthetic fabrics.
So while synthetic fabrics are technically able to biodegrade, they take too long to do so and are imbued with many chemicals, causing them to emit greenhouse gases such as methane into the environment. This creates damage to our environment and is not therefore sustainable; 600 years of methane emissions is definitely not desirable!
Some fabrics, even though not made from synthetic fibres such as non-organic cotton, cannot simply biodegrade due to the large number of dyes or finishing chemicals applied.
Which Fabrics Are Naturally Biodegradable?
The majority of fabrics and fibres will biodegrade, whether synthetic or not. However the time it takes along with the amount of damage dealt to our environment will vary, depending largely on what fibres a fabric is made from. The below list details a few 100% environmentally friendly fabrics which will biodegrade seamlessly back into nature’s cycle.
Organic cotton is cotton that is produced without the use of chemicals, pesticides or synthetic substances inside of it.
It can take as little as 1-5 months to completely biodegrade, close to an apple core that takes 2 months.
Silk is produced completely naturally from the fibres used by silk worms when they spin themselves cocoons to become moths. Silk, even pure silk, has always been one of the most resilient natural fibres, getting tougher as time wears on. It starts to show signs of biodegradation after about 4 years. Science has proven that the use of acidic enzymes speeds up the biodegradation of silk, which makes sense when one considers that the original purpose of silk was to be eaten by the moth hatching from the cocoon.
An incredibly versatile plant in terms of fibres, hemp is used in the production of garments, paper, biodegradable plastics, paint, insulation, biofuel, fabric and even a food source for essential omega oils. Mostly still produced using natural methods, hemp is cut and stripped manually of fibres that are spun into threads.
There is little information on how long it takes hemp fibres to biodegrade; however the old saying “hemp wears in, not out” illuminates the fact that hemp fibres become naturally softer over time. The reason hemp is so tough as an all-natural fibre is the fact that the fibre is made up of a large portion of silica (sand), withstanding the test of time and ultimately able to biodegrade back into sand.
Ramie fabric is produced from the Boehmeria Nivea plant, aka Chinese nettle or Rhea, a Malaysian equivalent plant. This fabric has been produced from these plants since ancient times as well, known by the ancient Egyptians and Asian cultures for centuries. Egyptian mummy bandages are made from ramie fabric. In the middle ages, European cultures also caught on to this fibrous fabric.
Ramie is shown to degrade slower than cotton inside the lab, indicating it takes slightly longer for it to naturally degrade into the soil. If ramie mummification bandages can survive centuries with little damage, it’s probably safe to assume Ramie takes a few years to biodegrade in soil – this still does not compare to many synthetic fabric lifespans.
This is the plant or plant fibre that is used to make burlap, hessian or gunny cloth and rope. These fibres are naturally stripped from the white jute plant in a process called retting. Jute is used mostly in making sacks for its durable anti-rot properties. One hectare of jute plants can consume up to 15 tonnes of CO2!
Due to very little processing, jute is biodegradable, despite its anti-rot properties. It can be used under a thin layer of soil to prevent weed growth in agriculture, taking 2-3years to biodegrade.
Wool is produced under natural conditions without the addition of chemicals (it’s harvested from livestock) and has been adopted as a leading textile for many thousands of years in clothing, upholstery and blankets.
When untreated with chemicals, wool is 100% biodegradable in a span of 1-5 years based on the techniques adopted to convert it into fibre.
This prolific plant is actually one of the tallest species of grass known to man. Instead of being completely harvested, bamboo is cut like grass, which is far more sustainable for soil health. Bamboo is also grown without use of pesticides or fertilisers.
However, non-organic bamboo is usually soaked in hydrogen peroxide to break it down into its fibres before being spun into Rayon, so you will want to look for clothing made from organic bamboo fibre.
Organic bamboo is broken down quickly with natural enzymes to produce a fabric and is often a more expensive process. Manufacturers of pure bamboo fabrics and fibres say it takes 4-6months to biodegrade naturally.
Abaca, also known as ‘Manila hemp’ is a leaf fibre made from the leaves of the Abaca plant.The leaf stalks are usually manually handled, stripped and pulped, before being simply washed and dried to make the fibres. Abaca has been used for centuries as a natural fibre in rope, twine and nets for its high lignin content, making it exceptionally strong. It also used to be used for ships rigging.
Despite being so highly durable, Abaca was shown to start disintegrating after 2 months in a degradation experiment done. The sample of abaca fabric had water poured on it each day in the same spot, proving that Abaca is biodegradable.
Why Aren’t More Fabrics Biodegradable?
Very few fabrics are organically biodegradable owing to the fact that they contain some amount of chemicals to increase their lifespan and resilience.
Biodegradability of fabrics is largely determined by the amount of chemicals used in the textile-life-cycle. Typically the more chemicals used, the longer it takes to biodegrade. And the more damage to the environment and people it causes.
More conclusive research is required in order to develop resilient fabrics that are organic and can biodegrade without causing any harm.