Is Cotton Biodegradable? What You Should Know.

Cotton Stool

27 million tons of cotton are produced every year. The numbers don’t lie; we rely on cotton for so many things.

While we primarily associate cotton with clothing, it also has a variety of other uses. Some things that contain cotton include:

  1. Fishing nets
  2. Book binders
  3. Coffee filters
  4. Cotton paper
  5. Bed sheets
  6. Bandages

The list goes on. This is just a fraction of the number of things that wouldn’t be around without cotton.

But is something that’s so widespread good for the environment? Is it biodegradable like paper, or is it something that we should stay away from? And what about synthetic fibers that may contain cotton?

We aim to answer these questions and more in this article. By the end of it, you will know if cotton is good or bad for the environment, as well as whether or not it’s biodegradable.

Without further delay, let’s jump right in!

Cotton – What You Should Know.

Like always, let’s address the big question first.

Is Cotton Biodegradable?

Cotton fluff in ball

Yes, cotton is biodegradable. Cotton is made from the natural fibers of the genus Gossypium, a family of cotton plants. These fibers can be broken down by weather conditions and microorganisms, causing them to decompose into natural materials like carbon and water.

What’s nice about cotton is that it can biodegrade in aerobic (with oxygen) or anaerobic (without oxygen) environments.

Aerobic environments are pretty much anywhere that’s not a landfill or the ocean, while landfills and oceans are classic anaerobic environments.

How Long Does It Take For Cotton To Biodegrade?

Multiple cotton plants in field

It can take 5 to 7 months for cotton to biodegrade. Cotton breaks down faster in aerobic conditions, but it can still break down in anaerobic conditions like landfills albeit at a slower rate.

While not 100% ideal, this is preferable to stuff like gum that can last hundreds of years in landfills.

Since we use so much cotton on a daily basis, it could cause a significant pile-up in both landfills and the environment if it wasn’t biodegradable.

However, we should strive to keep cotton out of landfills and our oceans regardless. If you are want to quickly dispose of it, consider composting it instead.

Are Synthetic Fabrics Biodegradable?

Polyester scarfs

Synthetic fabrics like polyester, polypropylene, nylon, acrylic, and polyethylene are not biodegradable. These are oil-based fabrics that use man-made fibers, all of which are made from elements not found in nature. Since there is no microorganism that breaks it down, it is not biodegradable.

Acrylic, for example, is closer to plastic than anything else. This means that it can contribute to many of the same issues that plastic does, including the formation of microplastics and the endangerment of marine life.

It’s best to stick to cotton whenever possible. It’s the best fabric in terms of biodegradability and does little to no harm when exposed to natural environments.

Keep in mind that cotton that’s mixed with synthetic fabrics is no longer biodegradable. 100% cotton clothing is the only way to make sure that it stays biodegradable.

Is Cotton Eco-Friendly?

Ends of cotton plant heads

Cotton is biodegradable, but not everything about it is good for the environment. It takes many natural resources for cotton to even be produced, and pesticides can do harm to the environment as well as our health.

…cotton is very water-intensive to cultivate and process, taking between 10,000 and 20,000 gallons of water to make a single pair of jeans and up to 3,000 to make a T-shirt.

Excerpt from

Pesticides are used to ward off pests that can threaten the crop, but there are negative effects for us and the planet.

These chemicals are not easily removed and will often still be present after production. Once that cotton is disposed of and starts to break down, the toxic chemicals will leak into the earth and water supplies. These chemicals have been demonstrated to cause cancer and miscarriages with enough exposure.

It’s important that you support sustainable cotton production instead. This typically takes the form of organic cotton, which isn’t sprayed with pesticides and tends to be more eco-friendly during production.

Don’t forget to reuse cotton! That old t-shirt can be repurposed into many different things like:

  1. A basket
  2. A warmer for your pet
  3. A part of a quilt
  4. A plant pot suspender
  5. A headband
  6. A makeup pad remover

If you have no interest in that, you can also donate them to your local nonprofit organization. Someone else can definitely put your old clothing to good use, and you get to keep it out of a landfill.

It’s a win-win!

It’s worth noting that synthetic fabrics are not eco-friendly. It still takes natural resources to create them, but they do not biodegradable and are awful for the environment.

Is Cotton Recyclable?

Multi-colored recycling bins

Yes, cotton is 100% recyclable. In order to recycle cotton, you must take it to a recycling facility that accepts cotton drop-offs. If there is such a location near you, make sure that you clean (wash and dry) the cotton before taking it over there, as dirty or wet cotton will not be accepted.

Unless specified by the local waste management organization, do not put cotton in the recycling bin. It is often not recycled with other common-recycled materials, meaning that it will be separated and tossed into a landfill. Always make sure that you get the right information before proceeding.

Recycled cotton is often combined with other recycled materials to make new clothing items. It can also be made into paper, which saves trees from being cut down.

So don’t be afraid to recycle your cotton! There are many benefits to doing so.

As for synthetic fabrics, it’s not much better here either. While some of them can be recycled (polyester and acrylic to some degree), it is not easily done. Still, it’s best to make an effort to do so when possible, as this is the only possible way to dispose of these fabrics in an eco-friendly way.

Also, cotton that has been exposed to non-recyclable elements cannot be recycled. So those cotton balls or cotton wipes that are used for makeup removal cannot be recycled.

Is Cotton Compostable?

Compost stable with leaves

Cotton is definitely compostable. After the cotton is exposed to the contents of a compost bin, it can take a week to 5 months for it to completely break down. The time it takes for cotton to break down depends on the thickness and size.

It’s super easy to compost cotton. The microorganisms that do it already naturally exist, so it won’t require any extra effort on your part.

If you want to take the decomposition of cotton into your own hands, then composting it is the way to go. And the resulting compost is very eco-friendly, so make sure to use it or donate it to those in need!

And no, synthetic fibers are not compostable. Since they are not biodegradable, there is nothing that a compost bin can do to accelerate the process.

Cotton balls that have been exposed to non-compostable materials cannot be composted. Again, cotton balls or wipes that have been used for makeup removal cannot be composted.

In Summary

Close up of cotton plants with faded background of field

Alright, so in short:

  1. Cotton is very biodegradable – it can biodegrade in aerobic and anaerobic environments.
  2. Cotton is somewhat eco-friendly. Its production and exposure to toxic chemicals are problematic for our health and the planet’s health, even if it’s biodegradable.
  3. Cotton is recyclable but make sure to check if local recycling facilities can take it.
  4. Cotton is compostable. It’s easy to do and decomposes quickly.
  5. Synthetic fibers may be recyclable but are otherwise horrible for the environment. They cannot biodegrade nor turn into compost.

Cotton is pretty eco-friendly. But sustainable, organic cotton is the best form of cotton by far. It’s important that we support companies that go above and beyond to support the environment by using sustainable cotton in their products.

By doing so, we can get away from cotton that’s greedy on resources and drenched in chemicals.

So next time you see that cotton was used in your item of choice, take a minute to see if that cotton was created through sustainable efforts.

And once your cotton has come to the end of its lifespan, you have plenty of eco-friendly options to choose from. Reuse, recycle, or compost it! By doing so, you are taking crucial steps towards a greener, better world.

Wrap Up

That concludes our article! Now you can spread the word!

Or you can just send them to this article 😉

As always, thanks for reading! We appreciate you stopping by!

Let’s all continue to strive for a greener, better way of living!