Post about "Textiles & Nonwovens"

Cradle to Cradle – Composting Your T-Shirt

Nature provides us with the best examples of chemistry and physics. Consider the strength of a spider’s silk thread and the beauty and functionality of its web, or the perfect hexagonal structure of the beehive and the desirable properties of its honey and beeswax. Nature persists because of its closed-loop biological cycles involving growth, the food chain, and decomposition. Earth has been operating this way for millions of years without depleting its own resources.We can (and should) design our goods following nature’s examples. The Cradle to Cradle approach challenges us to design products to fit in either a technical or biological closed-loop cycle. Technical nutrients are reclaimed and reused or recycled. Biological nutrients are consumed or composted. In both circumstances, waste from one application provides food for another within their respective cycles. Mixing of technical and biological nutrients in such a way that they cannot be easily separated from one another creates the “monstrous hybrid”, as described by William McDonough and Michael Braungart in their book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. Bound to each other, the nutrients are no longer eligible for recycling or composting and the monster is bound for its grave (landfill).A trip to the mall or any conventional store will yield mostly monstrous hybrids. Let’s take, for example, your average cotton T-shirt. It sounds quite simple, but a closer look reveals why it is usually ultimately bound for the landfill. The cotton used to make the shirt is a biologic nutrient, capable of being composted with the resulting compost supporting plant growth. If the cotton is not organic, it is likely that large amounts of pesticides were used, so much so that one can hardly consider conventional cotton a true biologic material. Fortunately, people are requesting and farmers are growing organic cotton.There are numerous advantages to the organic cotton shirt over your average cotton T, most notably the absence of pesticide in the environment and reduced human exposure to pesticide and residues. It is a huge step forward. But consider what else might be part of this T-shirt that prevents it from existing as a pure biologic nutrient even if it is organic. Here’s where the details of the organic standards and textile labeling laws come in.Even the certified organic cotton T-shirt can be partially synthetic. It can, for example, be sewn with thread containing polyester. Stronger than cotton, polyester is preferred for sewing but it doesn’t work for composters. (By the way, you can tell if thread is cotton or polyester by taking a match to it; if it burns it is cotton while polyester shrivels like a plastic.) Organic textile standards also allow for small amounts (5-10%) of synthetic fibers in the fabric. Similarly, the textile labeling laws indicate that small amounts of synthetics need not be disclosed on labels. So your 100% organic cotton shirt might be a little bit polyester or spandex. Sadly, product disposal is not being fully considered and the composter is left not knowing.Most tags are made from nylon or some other durable synthetic fabric to withstand washing, so they aren’t candidates for the compost either. Tags can be removed, but typically tags are sewn in so you’ll need to tear open the seams to fully remove it. Even if you are willing to cut open seams and tear out thread in order to compost your shirt, consider the dyes, decals, and finishes that can also preclude an item from the compost pile. Those used for non-organic textiles may contain heavy metals, azo compounds, or formaldehyde. The myriad of non-biologic nutrients mixed in with our biological nutrient (cotton) make the compostable T-shirt hard to come by.During the mid-20th century there was an explosion in the development of synthetic materials. While the added convenience is undeniable, so is the added trash and health burden. The resulting polymers (e.g., plastics) are here for the long haul since microbes have yet to evolve to break them down. For the long term it just makes sense to use more of the biological cycles that have been at work for millions of years; and when they don’t meet our modern needs, let’s create synthetic cycles that function in the same way. If we reject the monstrous hybrid, we’ll need fewer graves leaving more space to observe nature’s fine examples.Copyright 2009 Compostable Goods.