How Cotton Incorporated Is Researching and Reducing Cotton’s End-of-Life Impact

The environmental impact of a raw material encompasses its entire life cycle—from initial production to post-consumer processing.

With this in mind, research and promotion organization Cotton Incorporated is working to amplify cotton’s inherent sustainable properties with circular solutions. On stage at the Sourcing Journal Sustainability Summit, executives from Cotton Incorporated detailed some of these efforts in conversation with editor in chief Peter Sadera.

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While it grows, cotton sequesters or pulls carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and every pound of cotton clothing holds about 1.6 pounds of CO2, according to Dr. Jesse Daystar, chief sustainability officer and vice president, sustainability at Cotton Incorporated. He added that cotton garments last, allowing for longer use. “It’s a very durable garment, has many reuses and has many options at the end of life,” he said.

One possible stream for cotton clothing waste is mechanical recycling, which breaks cloth back into fibers. A downside of this “very destructive process” is losing approximately half of the original cotton fiber length, according to Mary Ankeny, vice president, product development and implementation operations at Cotton Incorporated. To avoid quality, strength and performance issues, the organization recommends limiting recycled content to 20-30 percent and mixing these fibers with virgin cotton. Another opportunity for shorter fibers is nonwoven production, such as wipes or the insulation material that is made from denim collected through Cotton Incorporated’s Blue Jeans Go Green program.

Aside from mechanical recycling, cotton can also be repurposed through chemistry. Cotton Incorporated has collaborated with North Carolina State University to develop a process that can turn cotton into glucose, or sugar. This solution seeks to divert difficult-to-recycle cotton—either because it is at its end of life or because it is blended with other fibers—from landfills. The science behind this is cotton’s composition; the fiber is made of cellulose, a long-chain carbohydrate.

Once the glucose is produced, it can be used as an alternative to petroleum-based inputs for acids, detergents, cosmetics and more. “There is currently a movement in the industry to look at bio-based and biodegradable chemistry, and this just fits really nicely right in there,” said Ankeny.

As textiles are worn and washed, microfibers are released and can make their way into bodies of water. Along with N.C. State, Cotton Incorporated has studied how cotton and other fibers behave in aquatic environments. This research has shown that cotton’s biodegradation happens faster than that of an oak leaf. “Nature did design cellulose through evolution. It’s also designed to take care of it,” said Daystar. “We have natural systems, the bugs actually eat that and recycle it in a natural way.”

The organization’s studies have shown that this biodegradability remains in effect even for cotton with treatments or finishes such as water repellants, bleach and dyes. Although the biodegradation process may be slowed, small spaces in these coatings enable the microbes to reach the cotton and digest it.

In addition to water, cotton breaks down in soil, making composting another end-of-life option. A Cotton Incorporated and Cornell University study put jeans in soil to track the degradation in that environment. By burying cotton textiles in soil, the sequestered carbon is captured in the ground, and cotton can reduce the need for fertilizer by enriching soil. Lowering fertilizer needs has a carbon impact, since Cotton Incorporated’s life cycle assessment of cotton showed nitrogen-based fertilizers were a significant contributor to the crop’s total greenhouse gas emissions. “[Composting is] kind of an old technology but actually works very well for cotton,” said Daystar.

Beyond the life cycle benefits for cotton, market demand for natural fibers has been picking up, with Cotton Incorporated survey data showing that 72 percent of consumers are willing to pay more for natural fibers, while only 52 percent said the same in 2013. “The very best thing to do is to really thoughtfully purchase your cotton garments so that they last for more than one season, because you’re sequestering that CO2 in your closet,” Ankeny said.