Breaking Down the Biodegradability Myth in Fashion

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Biodegradability comes up a lot when we talk about sustainable fashion. The prevailing belief seems to be that if a fabric is made with natural fibers, it is ‘biodegradable’ and, if it’s biodegradable, then it must be sustainable. But there are a few problems with that logic:

First, modern landfills are not conducive to biodegradability. Composting expert and board member of the California Organics Recycling Council (CORC), Matthew Cotton, explains it this way: “Some things break down in the landfill, but it’s extremely variable, depending on conditions.” The process of biodegradation requires air, water and bacteria. All three are scarce in today’s landfills because they are designed specifically to keep them out.

One of the by-products of trash that has broken down is a kind of garbage juice, known in the waste management industry as ‘leachate.’ Because this juice is full of all manner of material—including toxic substances (cleaning products, paints, solvents, etc.) and biohazards (cat litter and dirty diapers to name two of the most common)—it is best kept out of our ground water. To keep the water clean, our trash is ‘entombed’ (yes, this is the industry term!) using clay, gravel, industrial textiles, and daily cover (soil, in some cases; yard trimmings and landscaping waste in others). The result is an extremely slow process of biodegradation that allows scientists (aka garbologists) to find five-year-old heads of lettuce that are still relatively intact, as well as newspapers from decades ago that are still readable!

Another example, closer to fashion, is this now famous 5,500-year-old shoe found in Armenia in 2010. Made with leather and stuffed with grass, no one would dispute that the shoe is “100% natural.” And yet, here it is, still looking like a shoe. “Yes, but textiles must be different,” you say? How about the 2,000-year-old tunic found in an Egyptian tomb? Entombment is entombment, whether at a venerated archeological site or a lowly landfill.

Then there’s what goes into the air. To the extent that garbage does break down in today’s landfills, the fact that it’s usually happening anaerobically (without oxygen), means it releases methane gas—a lot of it. Methane gas is one of the most powerful greenhouse gases known—as much as 35X more potent than carbon dioxide in causing climate change. And, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, landfills are the third largest source of methane. So natural textiles are arguably more harmful than synthetic if thrown away.

Really the term we should use when talking about the breaking down of any organic material is “compostability” rather than biodegradability. In this context, textiles made of natural fibers could be transformed into a usable end product, i.e., soil amendment, but this is all theoretical. In the case of other organic material (food scraps, yard trimmings and the like), facilities exist in many parts of the U.S. to process them. These large-scale compost operations don’t accept textiles, however. “If you say ‘biodegradable’ [about a textile], it doesn’t really mean anything,” Cotton asserts. “And if you call it ‘compostable,’ there really isn’t the infrastructure for that.”

In the end, it’s really quite simple: Landfilling should be the last resort when it comes to dealing with any product at the end of its useful life. So what to do?

  • First don’t throw your clothes in the trash—whether cotton, linen or polyester. Even if they’re stained or torn, they are still useable as recycled textiles by the automobile and carpet industries, among others. (Just be sure they’re clean.)
  • Let your local charity decide what they can sell as a reusable item and what needs to be baled as scrap. Their eyes are trained to sort these things out efficiently.
  • Even better, repair or update your clothes before considering disposal or donation. And finally, the “quality over quantity” mantra holds true once again:
  • Buy less but buy durable, and your clothes’ final days won’t be here for a long time.

*This story first appeared on Magnifeco

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