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Is Cotton Fabric Recyclable?

Cotton fills our home through both reusable and single-use products. The clothing that we wear and the towels that we use are commonly made from cotton, as of course are cotton balls, cotton swabs, and even some coffee filters. You’re sure to go through a lot of single-use cotton products, but even cotton clothing and other textiles don’t last forever. Once a cotton product has run its course, you may be wondering if you can recycle it along with your other recyclables? Some cotton is recyclable, but not through your curbside recycling program. But there are also some cotton products that aren’t recyclable at all. What factors determine whether or not cotton can be recycled and how?

Is Cotton Recyclable?

Technically, all cotton could be recycled. But it’s not easy or feasible to recycle some products that are made from cotton. Thanks to a growing interest in manufacturing and purchasing sustainable clothing and other products, recycled cotton is becoming more commonly used to make textiles. Recycled cotton used for textiles includes cotton that was recycled from raw materials as well as cotton textiles that have been remanufactured into new products.

But that doesn’t mean that just anybody can recycle their cotton textiles, nor does it mean that you can just toss cotton clothing and towels into the recycling bin. There are two main sources of cotton that can be recycled: pre-consumer and post-consumer.

Pre-Consumer Cotton

Pre-consumer cotton includes the scraps of cotton fabric that have been leftover from making textiles. This is the most recycled type of cotton because it is easier to recycle.  Textile manufacturers can pre-sort their scraps based on the appearance and texture of the fabric, so that recycling facilities don’t have to process it as much. They also have larger quantities of cotton that can be recycled than consumers do.

Post-Consumer Cotton

Post-consumer cotton includes the textiles that were made from cotton fabric- including clothing, towels, and other household items- and purchased by consumers. It is technically recyclable, but it usually isn’t because it can’t be accepted through curbside recycling and most municipal facilities don’t have the means to recycle cotton textiles. This is primarily due to the fact that these textiles are found in a variety of colors, sizes, and textures.  It would be too time-consuming and labor-intensive to sort and process all of the different cotton textiles that come from consumers.

FAQs

Organic cotton is a sustainable, renewable and biodegradable fibre that is ideal for eco-fashion products. In fact, most of the cotton grown is not organic. Non-organic cotton contributes to environmental pollution through the use of pesticides and insecticides

Cotton is biodegradable both anaerobically (without oxygen) and aerobically (with oxygen). Modern landfills are sealed and keep out water and oxygen, making them anaerobic. Cotton will degrade under these conditions but much more slowly than in aerobic conditions, or in a compost heap.

During the recycling process, the cotton waste is first sorted by type and color and then processed through stripping machines that break the yarns and fabric into smaller pieces before pulling them apart into fiber.

Cotton farming, the conventional way, uses a lot of harmful chemicals to control pests and boost production. The heavy use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers harms the environment over time. These toxic chemicals also threaten human health, wildlife, water, and soil.

Cotton's most prominent environmental impacts result from the use of agrochemicals (especially pesticides), the consumption of water, and the conversion of habitat to agricultural use.

How To Dispose Of Cotton

Cotton is often marketed as an all-natural and all-purpose material. It’s lightweight, breathable and durable, but unfortunately, it’s not among the most eco-friendly fabrics.

Beyond production, cotton’s potential to be recycled is dubious. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that synthetic fabrics are a better option. Synthetic fabrics shed microplastic threads during every wash and aren’t biodegradable like cotton. Ultimately, like many materials, cotton has pros and cons associated with its eco-friendliness.

Sustainability Of Cotton Production

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Cotton has been grown for textile use since at least 5,000 B.C. However, it’s such a water-intensive crop that during a series of droughts, irrigation for cotton farming drained the Aral Sea to one-tenth its original size. When combined with heavy nutrient consumption and reliance on fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, the runoff from cotton farming degrades the surrounding soil even as it leaches nutrients from the actual farmland. The environmental impact of industrial-level cotton farming has had significant and lasting impacts on huge swaths of communities and ecosystems.

Organic cotton farming and especially smaller practices that operate in areas with plenty of natural rainfall have proven to be much more sustainable. However, Green Matters notes that many smaller, independent farms and organizations end up being undercut or bought out by larger ones that may sometimes use more questionable approaches to “organic” farming. One way you can reduce the amount of new cotton being farmed is to recycle used cotton, though that has its limits as well.

The Cotton Recycling Process

Recycling has many benefits, especially because it reduces waste, and when it comes to cotton production, it helps ease its impact on the environment. However, unlike recycling plastic or metal, which can be melted down and reused entirely, recycled cotton must be mechanically separated and processed, which shortens the length of each fiber. This means that using 100 percent recycled cotton to make a garment is next to impossible.

Instead, recycled cotton is mixed with new material to reduce the total amount of new cotton needed. Not all cotton material can be recycled either. If any amount of synthetic material is mixed with the cotton or if a synthetic thread is used to stitch seams or patches, it cannot be processed for recycling.

Your best bet is to repurpose the material, prolonging its use and preventing waste. You may be able to make it into a new garment or even use it as a towel for drying off a freshly bathed puppy.

What Cotton Products Aren’t Recyclable?

Usually, single-use cotton products can’t be recycled. This includes things such as cotton balls, swabs, and rounds. The reason that they can’t be recycled is due to the fact that the fibers are often small and can’t withstand the recycling process.

Or, in the case of cotton swabs, they contain materials such as plastic that can’t be separated from the cotton. But, most single-use cotton products are usually biodegradable and compostable as long as they don’t contain plastic. So even though you can’t recycle them, you can still dispose of them in an eco-friendly way.

Is Cotton Hard To Recycle? (4 Reasons)

There are some challenges with recycling cotton, which is why a lot of cotton textiles either aren’t recycled or aren’t accepted by municipal recycling facilities. Most of these challenges stem from the fact that like paper, cotton is a plant-based product. Here are some of the more specific issues that come with trying to recycle cotton.

It Can’t Be Continuously Recycled

Cotton fibers have a similar structure to that of paper and wood.

It’s due to this structure that natural fibers can only be recycled a certain number of times. The amount of times that cotton can be recycled just depends on the size and strength of the original product. Every time cotton fibers are recycled, they lose some of their length, strength, and durability.

In order to maintain its strength and durability when made into new yarn for textiles, cotton has to be blended with other materials. This usually can’t be done at a recycling facility.  Some of the fibers used are synthetic, and synthetic fibers aren’t environmentally friendly anyway.

The Recycling Stream Could Be Contaminated 

When recycling cotton textiles, there is a greater chance for the recycling stream to be contaminated. Let’s say, for instance, that you send a cotton shirt to recycling but you didn’t know that it wasn’t 100% cotton.

It could have been blended with another fiber, such as polyester or spandex.  These fibers can contaminate the recycling stream because they don’t have the same composition as cotton and can’t be recycled the same way. That’s the main reason why cotton textiles aren’t accepted through curbside programs. 

The recycling center would have to check each piece of clothing or fabric to see what it is made of. As you can imagine, this would take a lot of time. When textile manufacturers recycle fabric scraps, they know what the fabric is made of and whether or not it can be recycled, so they sort it accordingly.

Recycled Cotton Has Limited Uses

The third challenge with recycling cotton is that there are limited uses as to the products you can make out of it. The products you can make depend on the quantity of cotton you have, as well as the structure and durability of that cotton. You want any product you make to be consistent in its structure and strength. Oftentimes there isn’t enough cotton that has uniform fibers that can be used to make a specific product or multiples of that product.

Consumer Interest Is Low

Research shows that only 32% of customers are interested in purchasing clothing and other textiles made from recycled materials, and only 24% are willing to potentially pay more for it. Without consumer interest, it is harder for textile manufacturers and retailers to get on board with using recycled materials. If more companies and consumers were on board, there would be a greater need for recycling cotton and there would be more cotton available to recycle as a result.

What Products Can Be Made From Recycled Cotton?

Recycled cotton can be used to make textiles, such as t-shirts, towels, and reusable diapers. Some may be made from 100% recycled materials, but others may only be partially made of recycled materials. This coincides with one of the above challenges when they don’t have enough of a particular type of cotton fiber to make a whole garment. Other products can be made of recycled cotton that don’t rely on the fibers being the same size and texture. Examples of these products include:

  • Stuffing (e.g. for stuffed animals and pillows)
  • Insulation
  • Cleaning rags
  • Mop heads

Recycled Cotton Vs Organic Cotton – Which One Is Better?

Historically, fashion and textiles have been some of the least sustainable of industries. However, they have made great strides in improving their environmental impact of late. Two of these advancements relate to cotton. There are now significant efforts being made to grow cotton organically. At the same time, infrastructure has been put in place to recycle used cotton. Environmentally-minded consumers may then ask: which is better, recycled cotton or organic cotton?

Recycling, like many things, can be complicated. Different materials can be recycled more efficiently than others. Additionally, recycling uses resources and produces greenhouse gases. Growing organic cotton, too, is a complex affair. It reduces harmful pesticides, but is still a resource-heavy process. This article further illuminates these two areas.

What Is Recycled Cotton?

What is recycled cotton? Is cotton recyclable? The simple answer is: yes, it is. Recycled cotton is used cotton fabric that is converted into fiber for new textile items. Other terms frequently used to describe it are ‘regenerated’ or ‘reclaimed’ cotton.

There are two major sources for recycled cotton. Pre-consumer material includes the scraps and by-products of the cotton manufacturing process. Post-consumer material refers to the items that have been bought and used. These can be clothing items, towels, bedsheets, furniture upholstery and many other things.

The vast majority of recycled cotton comes from pre-consumer materials – mainly scraps and cuttings. Post-consumer material is much harder to sort and recycle. This is because it is often blended with other materials and has been colored. This makes it a more labor and resource-intensive process, which in turn, makes it less efficient to recycle.

What Is Organic Cotton?

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Organic cotton is a material that has the same textile quality as regular cotton. However, it is produced without causing the same level of environmental damage. The cotton seeds used to grow it are not genetically modified. There are no harmful pesticides, insecticides, or chemical fertilizers used. Additionally, ethical and non-environmentally harmful farming practices are employed. These include crop-rotation and no-till farming, which help to conserve the soil.

Another important aspect of organic farming is that it safeguards those making it. The farmers and workers who tend to it are not exposed to harmful chemicals and substances. There are a number of organizations that bestow certification on organic cotton. This includes groups like Organic Content Standards, USDA-NOP, and Naturland. If organizations such as the above haven’t certificated a cotton yield, you can’t be sure it’s organic.

What Are The Advantages And Disadvantages Of Each?

Organic Cotton

There are many advantages to the development of organic cotton. The certification process facilitates traceability along the supply chain, which guarantees the organic integrity of the material. The organic growing process improves the biodiversity of the crop’s ecosystem. It also includes environmentally friendly alternatives to pesticides and fertilizers.

These practices, along with others such as the use of growth-encouraging insects, don't harm the environment. Additionally, they pose no threat to the health of those tending to the crops. Water is also used more efficiently, and thus less is needed. Ultimately, the quality of organic cotton is also very high. It’s durable, long-lasting, and feels great on the skin. The lack of chemicals in the production process also makes the cotton hypoallergenic.

However, organic cotton production is not a perfect process. To begin with, it’s a less efficient approach in terms of crop yield. This is because non-organic cotton is genetically altered to produce larger amounts. The result of this is that organic cotton takes more space to grow a similar amount. This can result in more deforestation to make the amount of room needed. Additionally, organic cotton does still require a large amount of water. This is an area that has seen improvements recently. Nevertheless, it is still a resource-heavy production process in this regard.

Recycled Cotton

Recycling cotton entails significantly less water consumption than growing it. When we recycle cotton, we also save it from being dumped in a landfill. This limits the amount of material causing greenhouse gases in garbage dumps. There is also a wide range of potential uses for recycled cotton. It can be made into cleaning cloths, insulation, clothes, mop heads, and much more.

However, recycling cotton does have some drawbacks. The process does negatively affect the quality of the material. This means that recycled cotton fabric has to be mixed with synthetic fibers. This includes materials such as polyester. Synthetic materials are much less environmentally friendly. On top of this, the impact on quality means that cotton can’t be recycled continuously. Furthermore, the recycling process uses resources, which further contribute to its carbon footprint.

It should be noted that while both organic and recycled cotton have their drawbacks, they are continuously being improved upon. Progress is being made all the time to make both more environmentally friendly. Ultimately, recycled and organic cotton are both preferable to regular cotton.

Recycled Cotton Vs Organic Cotton: Is There A Winner?

So, is there a clear winner between recycled cotton and organic cotton? The simple answer is no, there isn’t. In fact, the better question to ask is: how can we make both more sustainable? Work needs to be done to lessen the environmental impact of both types of cotton. Organic cotton farming needs to be made more efficient and progress must be made on generating higher quality recycled cotton.

That being said, they are both much better than regular cotton. For consumers, the most important thing is to reduce your own carbon footprint. It’s certainly preferable to recycle cotton than to send it to a dump. Buying organic cotton is also much greener than buying its regular alternative.

Conclusion

Although some cotton products are recyclable, it is not always easy for you and me to do so due to the cost and amount of processing involved. Recycling cotton is typically reserved for textile manufacturers who have a lot of scraps to get rid of and have the resources to do so.

But just because you can’t recycle cotton doesn’t mean you have to throw it away. There are ways that you can repurpose it, or you can donate it to be used by someone else. You can also consider supporting companies that use recycled cotton products in order to increase consumer interest, or donate your used clothing to retailers that participate in recycling it.

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