What are clothes made from? Will they biodegrade?

What are clothes made out of today? 

The common natural plant fibres are cotton, wool, flax, ramie and silk. Fur, skins, down and leather come from animals.  Fabric can also be made from plastics: that is they originate from crude oil. 

Loosely, fabrics from animals and plants will eventually biodegrade in landfill or water but those derived from plastic will not. 

When ‘big’ plastic breaks down, the pieces get smaller and smaller, becoming micro plastics, but they never go away completely. The fibres released from clothing and textiles are also micro plastics; that is a particle less than 5mm long or diameter. 

Do a simple experiment. Pour a litre of tap water through a coffee filter paper and look at the paper under a microscope or a magnifying glass. Can you see any hair like fibres on the paper?  Now do the same with water that you have dipped the sleeve of a fleece top into. Interesting results ? 

How many fibres did you see? One? Two? More like a thousand. This micro-plastic will end up in our water system, be filtered and probably in landfill or as fertiliser on fields. From here it will likely get back into the water system anyway. 

Look at the labels on your clothes. Most clothes are mixtures of different fibres. The common synthetic materials are polyester, rayon, elastane, nylon and  lycra. Some names are chemical names and some are trade names.  

There is much confusion and gobbledygook about the eco friendliness of textiles. Information about biodegradability is given in the table below.

Material Abbreviation Common name Origin Regarded as bio degradable? How long would it take to biodegrade in landfill Used for clothing?
Cotton

Plant Yes 3-6 months Yes
Wool, Silk

Animal Yes 1-5 years Yes
Bamboo, jute, hemp

Plant Yes 6 months -5 years Yes
Modified cellulose
Rayon, Viscose, Lyocell Plant   (Wood pulp) Yes 3-12 months Yes
Cellulose Acetate

Plant   (Wood pulp) Depending on ‘activity’ of the soil 9months -Several years Yes
Polyethylene terephthalate PET polyester Crude oil No
Yes
Polyamide PA Nylon Crude oil, No
Yes
Polyurethane fibre
Elastane, Lycra, Spandex Crude ol no
Yes
Polyvinyl chloride PVC
Crude oil No
Yes
Acrylic

Crude oil No
Yes
Polystyrene PS
Crude oil No
No
Low-density Polyethylene LDPE
Crude oil No
No
High-density Polyethylene HDPE
Crude oil No
No
Polypropylene PP
Crude oil No
No
Acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene ABS
Crude oil No
No
Polytetrafluoroethylene PTFE
Crude oil No
No
Polycarbonate PC Polycarbonate of bisphenol A Crude oil No
No
Polymethyl methacrylate PMMA
Crude oil no
No

Stephanie Matthews May 2019

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