Tiny Fibers Paint Big Picture

stacey gorman
Stacey Gorman,
Warren, Arkansas

A lot of thought typically goes into purchasing a garment. For cotton producers, even more thought goes into how the cotton for that attire is grown. The care and disposal of garments, both natural and synthetic, is a buzzworthy topic throughout the supply chain.

What happens when your favorite cotton shirt gets laundered? The process causes all fabrics (both natural and synthetic) to shed tiny fibers, called microfibers, into waterways, such as rivers, lakes and oceans. Public awareness is growing about how textiles contribute to microfiber pollution.

Many governments are banning certain single-use plastics, consumers are demanding more sustainable alternatives and Cotton Incorporated is ready to answer the call. The organization is dedicated to better understanding the impacts of garment biodegradation within the supply chain and communicating with fashion decision-makers about how cotton fits into the equation.

Research Efforts

Cotton Incorporated has been conducting research on this subject for more than a decade. Studies done with Cornell University explored how quickly cotton- and polyester-based fabrics biodegraded in an industrial compost setting. More recently, Cotton Incorporated worked with North Carolina State University to examine textile laundering, microfiber emissions and their biodegradation rates in wastewater treatment inoculum, freshwater and seawater.

According to Steven Pires, sustainability manager at Cotton Incorporated, “Microfiber research with NCSU has been focused on how long cotton and synthetic microfibers persist in aquatic environments. Cotton microfibers are essentially pure cellulose, a naturally occurring sugar molecule and the building block of a plant’s cell wall.

“Synthetic microfibers, such as those from polyester, are not naturally occurring in nature and are petroleum based. We know cotton microfibers degrade in the natural environment and synthetic polyester microfibers persist for longer periods of time.

Microplastics and synthetic microfibers are being found all across the globe and in our oceans at alarming levels. Cotton Incorporated sees using cotton in textiles as a way to help alleviate this problem.”

A major objective of the NCSU research was to determine the degradability of cotton and polyester microfibers in wastewater, seawater and lake water environments. In the wastewater environment, the results concluded that after 38 days, cotton had 89% degradation while the polyester fibers showed 5% degradation.

This means cotton degrades 84% more than polyester in wastewater. The study further indicates that cotton will continue to degrade over time unlike polyester where degradation plateaued after the time tested.

Follow-up research considered the impact of dyes and finishes on microfiber biodegradation. Similar biodegradation trends were observed in the dyed and finished microfibers as well, which creates a huge opportunity for cotton.

Cotton Alternatives

Beyond research, Cotton Incorporated engages with the textile industry in myriad other ways. It realizes the issue of microfiber and microplastic pollution has gained traction with brands and retailers. Since customers are concerned about protecting the environment, Cotton Incorporated has developed viable cotton alternatives to synthetic microfiber fabrics.

microfibersThe product development team has created cotton and cotton/wool blend fabric as an alternative to synthetic fleece. Designed to insulate and provide warmth, the cotton blend fabric also provides a natural, biodegradable option. The natural fibers shed from these fabrics easily break down in soil and wastewater environments. This development and other cotton fabric solutions can be found in Cotton Incorporated’s online Fabricast fabric library.

Connecting with the brand/retailer side of the supply chain, Cotton Incorporated hosts technical webinars highlighting its research on microfiber emissions and biodegradability, through the CottonWorks platform.

They engage in sustainability by being members in various organizations and initiatives, such as the Textile Exchange, The Sustainability Consortium, The Microfiber Consortium, The Plastic Leak Project, Ocean Wise, and Sustainable Apparel Coalition. This engagement disseminates relevant microfiber research to industry experts for implementation in various sustainability tools.

Clearly, fashion has an impact beyond the closet, and Cotton Incorporated takes microfiber shedding seriously. Through years of research, industry outreach and legitimate solutions, the organization is finding ways to advance cotton’s position in the marketplace and within the sustainability community. For more information, visit: cottontoday.cottoninc.com.

Gorman is The Cotton Board’s director of communications. Contact her at sgorman@cottonboard.org.

Related Articles

Connect With Cotton Farming

Quick Links

E-News Sign-up