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What Are Biodegradable fabrics?

nicole zizi

Biodegradable’ is a term that is often used when talking about the textile industry from an environmentally conscious angle. If you want to make environmentally conscious fabric and fashion choices, it’s worth knowing a little more about biodegradable fabrics, the impact they have and why they’re a greener choice.

The term ‘biodegradable’ refers to the ability of a substance to decompose naturally via living organisms.

Not all fabrics are safely biodegradable as they are made with artificial and chemical components that do not get broken down by microorganisms easily.

Do not confuse biodegradable with the term “bio-based”. Bio-based fabrics may have been produced from naturally grown fibres, such as cotton, but are not always easily biodegradable after being manufactured into fabric and can also include synthetic fibres blended in. For example, the bio-based fishing line (a thicker version of the nylon used in fabrics) takes up to 600 years to decompose. This is due to the strong, complex bonds of polymers inside synthetic fabrics.

So while synthetic fabrics are technically able to biodegrade, they take too long to do so and are imbued with many chemicals, causing them to emit greenhouse gases such as methane into the environment (they often spark fires in landfills). This creates damage to our environment and is not therefore sustainable; 600 years of methane emissions is definitely not desirable!

Some fabrics, even though not made from synthetic fibres such as non-organic cotton, cannot simply biodegrade due to the large number of dyes or finishing chemicals applied.

Which Fabrics Are Naturally Biodegradable?

The majority of fabrics and fibres will biodegrade, whether synthetic or not. However the time it takes along with the amount of damage dealt to our environment will vary, depending largely on what fibres a fabric is made from. The below list details a few 100% environmentally friendly fabrics which will biodegrade seamlessly back into nature’s cycle.


Organic Cotton

Organic cotton is cotton that is produced without the use of chemicals, pesticides or synthetic substances inside of it.

It can take as little as 1-5months to completely biodegrade, close to an apple core that takes 2 months.


Silk is produced completely naturally from the fibres used by silk worms when they spin themselves cocoons to become moths. Silk, even pure silk, has always been one of the most resilient natural fibres, getting tougher as time wears on. It starts to show signs of biodegradation after about 4 years. Science has proven that the use of acidic enzymes speeds up the biodegradation of silk, which makes sense when one considers that the original purpose of silk was to be eaten by the moth hatching from the cocoon.


An incredibly versatile plant in terms of fibres, hemp is used in the production of garments, paper, biodegradable plastics, paint, insulation, biofuel, fabric and even a food source for essential omega oils. Mostly still produced using natural methods, hemp is cut and stripped manually of fibres that are spun into threads.

There is little information on how long it takes hemp fibres to biodegrade; however the old saying “hemp wears in, not out” illuminates the fact that hemp fibres become naturally softer over time. The reason hemp is so tough as an all-natural fibre is the fact that the fibre is made up of a large portion of silica (sand), withstanding the test of time and ultimately able to biodegrade back into sand.


Ramie fabric is produced from the Boehmeria Nivea plant, aka Chinese nettle or Rhea, a Malaysian equivalent plant. This fabric has been produced from these plants since ancient times as well, known by the ancient Egyptians and Asian cultures for centuries. Egyptian mummy bandages are made from ramie fabric. In the middle ages, European cultures also caught on to this fibrous fabric.

Ramie is shown to degrade slower than cotton inside the lab, indicating it takes slightly longer for it to naturally degrade into the soil. If ramie mummification bandages can survive centuries with little damage, it’s probably safe to assume Ramie takes a few years to biodegrade in soil – this still does not compare to many synthetic fabric lifespans.


This is the plant or plant fibre that is used to make burlap, hessian or gunny cloth and rope. These fibres are naturally stripped from the white jute plant in a process called retting. Jute is used mostly in making sacks for its durable anti-rot properties. One hectare of jute plants can consume up to 15 tonnes of CO2!

Due to very little processing, jute is biodegradable, despite its anti-rot properties. It can be used under a thin layer of soil to prevent weed growth in agriculture, taking 2-3years to biodegrade.


Wool is produced under natural conditions without the addition of chemicals (it’s harvested from livestock) and has been adopted as a leading textile for many thousands of years in clothing, upholstery and blankets.

When untreated with chemicals, wool is 100% biodegradable in a span of 1-5 years based on the techniques adopted to convert it into fibre.

Organic Bamboo

This prolific plant is actually one of the tallest species of grass known to man.
Instead of being completely harvested, bamboo is cut like grass, which is far more sustainable for soil health. Bamboo is also grown without use of pesticides or fertilisers.

However, non-organic bamboo is usually soaked in hydrogen peroxide to break it down into its fibres before being spun into Rayon, so you will want to look for clothing made from organic bamboo fibre.

Organic bamboo is broken down quickly with natural enzymes to produce a fabric and is often a more expensive process. Manufacturers of pure bamboo fabrics and fibres say it takes 4-6months to biodegrade naturally.


Abaca, also known as ‘Manila hemp’ is a leaf fibre made from the leaves of the Abaca plant.The leaf stalks are usually manually handled, stripped and pulped, before being simply washed and dried to make the fibres. Abaca has been used for centuries as a natural fibre in rope, twine and nets for its high lignin content, making it exceptionally strong. It also used to be used for ships rigging.

Despite being so highly durable, Abaca was shown to start disintegrating after 2 months in a degradation experiment done. The sample of abaca fabric had water poured on it each day in the same spot, proving that Abaca is biodegradable.



Vegetable tanning is the most traditional and natural tanning method of them all. It has been around for centuries and has since then been perfected in every possible way. This method does not use chromium, making it significantly better for the environment compared to chrome tanning. The leather can also be recycled and is biodegradable.

Instead of chemicals such as chromium, tannins are used (hence the word tanning). This is a substance that naturally occurs in for example bark. The bark of trees like oak, chestnut, mangrove and many more are used to extract tannins into which hides are immersed for several weeks. The leather gets a wonderful earthy, woody and natural smell – but the method is costly due to the traditional process, the need of highly skilled craftsmen and the long production time.

Why Aren’t More Fabrics Biodegradable?

Very few fabrics are organically biodegradable owing to the fact that they contain some amount of chemicals to increase their lifespan and resilience.

Biodegradability of fabrics is largely determined by the amount of chemicals used in the textile-life-cycle. Typically the more chemicals used, the longer it takes to biodegrade. And the more damage to the environment and people it causes.

More conclusive research is required in order to develop resilient fabrics that are organic and can biodegrade without causing any harm.

A 100% biodegradable T-shirt made From Algae and Plant

nicole ziziComment

Tons of clothes are thrown in the bin once they’ve been worn out. As most contain some sort of synthetic material, they cannot easily be recycled or burned – even faux leather is generally made from plastic. In the UK, an estimated 350,000 tonnes of clothing go to landfills every year.

Natural materials, like cotton and wool, break down much faster than plastic, usually in less than a year. Plants and algae now offer an even eco-friendlier solution to the fashion industry’s giant waste problem. Adventure-clothing brand Vollebak has created a t-shirt from pulped eucalyptus, beech and spruce that will fully decompose within three months.

Rather than using the traditionally synthetic inks, the company created a printable ink from algae to decorate the t-shirt with a large green rectangle on the front. Algae only needs light, carbon dioxide and water to grow – and it grows at record speed, with the ability to cause algal blooms in lakes and the ocean within a day. “It’s exactly the kind of natural resource that we should be using. There’s an astonishing amount of it, and it can multiply at a crazy speed,” says Steve Tidball, who founded Vollebak with his twin brother. 


The algae is grown in a bioreactor and passed through a filter, which leave a soupy paste that is dried to create a fine powder. Mixing the dried powder with a water-based binder produces the final product: a green algae ink, which is printed onto the fabric made from wood pulp. 

Since it can’t survive outside water, the algae on the t-shirt is no longer alive. Its natural pigment is more sensitive than in chemical dyes, meaning that the algae might be a different shade of green everytime it is printed onto a t-shirt. In some cases, the ink might look more blue. 

“As soon as it comes into contact with air it starts to oxidise, which means the algae will begin to change colour again and your t-shirt will look different from one week to the next as it fades,” says Tidball, adding this should be seen as something positive as it will make every t-shirt unique. 

Eventually, as the t-shirt is exposed to sunlight and put through the washing machine, the print’s colour will become the same as the t-shirt itself. A hand-wash in cold water with as little detergent as possible will slow the fading and make the ink last for longer. 

At the end of the t-shirt’s life, all you need to remember is to compost it – or bury it in your garden. “Here it will biodegrade, turn into soil, and help new plants to grow,”

GIANT FACE-HAND” by Ronni Van Hout installed on roof in Wellington

nicole zizi

“The roof of City Gallery Wellington is now home to a "kinda creepy" five-metre-tall sculpture of a hand with a face called Quasi, by New Zealand artist Ronnie van Hout.

The hand, which stands on two fingers and features an unsmiling face, was winched onto the roof of the gallery yesterday by helicopter. It is scheduled to remain in place for up to three years.


Made from steel, polystyrene and resin, the hand is named Quasi, after Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre-Dame in French author Victor Hugo's 1831 novel of the same name.

The back of the hand features a face described by City Gallery Wellington as a "partial self-portrait" of Van Hout.” - Augusta Pownall