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.
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 TANNED LEATHERS
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.