Recycling has long been a way to cut down on humanity’s environmental impact and destruction by reducing post-consumer waste.
While people are used to recycling plastic and similar materials, one material people may not know they can recycle is cotton. Cotton fabric is a popular material for clothing, and can even be produced sustainably under certain conditions, but cotton waste still fills landfills in droves.
To combat this textile waste, recycled cotton is actually becoming increasingly popular among sustainable brands, so let’s look at whether this fabric is as environmentally friendly as it appears.
The Problem With Cotton
Before looking at recycled cotton and whether or not it’s sustainable, it’s worth looking at conventional cotton itself. Despite being a natural fiber, it has a large environmental footprint. Cotton production uses a great deal of water and a fair amount of chemicals.
A popular crop, cotton is responsible for 16% of the world’s insecticide and 6% of the world’s pesticide usage. These contain harmful chemicals—such as methyl bromide and diphacinone—pollute water sources as factory waste, thus endangering aquatic ecosystems and human water consumption, as well as contributing to carbon emissions “throughout their manufacture, transport, and application.”
These chemicals also have an impact on the soil, leading to degradation of essential minerals and biodiversity and preventing other plants from growing on the land in the future. They also affect people, with areas of high cotton production showing higher cases of miscarriages, cancer, and birth defects.
Cotton farming and production use a large amount of water to create cotton products. Much of cotton’s water usage comes from the irrigation necessary to grow cotton plants. One cotton plant needs 10 gallons of water just to produce “maximum yield potential.” In fact, 2,700 liters of water is needed to create a single cotton T-shirt. The consequences of this are dire. The Aral Sea, for example, has shrunk by 85% in the decades since cotton production began in the area.
With 1.1 billion people on Earth lacking access to freshwater, the world can hardly afford to waste it, especially on fabrics that will be discarded quicker than you can say “fire sale.”
What Is Recycled Cotton?
As the name suggests, recycled cotton fabric is a material made out of cotton that otherwise would have ended up in a landfill. Also known as upcycled cotton, it’s made from cotton products that have already been thrown out, such as clothes and bedding. It’s an environmentally conscious way of using cotton products and acts as a sustainable method of reducing post-consumer cotton waste.
In addition to reducing the amount of cotton that ends up in landfills, recycled cotton can also reduce reliance on cotton production, provided it’s widely adopted by clothing manufacturers. Despite this, the production process—outlined below—remains expensive, making recycled cotton an expensive fabric to purchase and use in textiles.
Recycled cotton offers multiple benefits, some of which it shares in common with cotton:
- Durable and strong
- Breathable and absorbent
- Quick drying
- Easy to wash and care for
- Environmentally friendly
Despite recycled cotton’s benefits, it also has a few downsides:
- Not as widely available as other fabrics
- More expensive than alternatives
- Not as mold-, wrinkle-, or moth-resistant as other textiles
- More likely to tear than other fabrics
- Not able to be recycled again
Recycled cotton properties
As an easy-to-clean and machine-washable fabric, recycled cotton is popular in the fashion industry. People continue to buy items made out of cotton fiber for its soft feel and affordability. In many ways, recycled cotton looks, feels, and behaves exactly like its conventional or organic cotton counterparts. Consumers mightn’t notice they’re different unless paying a lot of attention.
Cotton is also breathable, absorbent, and lightweight, yet durable, making it an excellent choice for activewear and similar products. Cotton fabrics are known to regulate body temperature quite well, which enhances the appeal for its use in activewear.
Most important, especially for the sustainable minded among us, cotton is a natural fabric, compostable and biodegradable. And the recycled version takes that sustainability a step further by prolonging the lifespan of the fabric and reducing textile waste.
How are recycled cotton fabrics produced?
Converting cotton fabric into recycled textile products is relatively simple and starts with the collection of cotton waste, which is then separated according to type and color. Once categorized, the fabric is then torn up to create fibers. These are subsequently sorted, washed, and spun to create new yarns that are ready to be made into a product. These resemble conventional cotton yarn.
While it’s possible to create products out of recycled cotton alone, it’s often blended with other fabrics—such as polyester and spandex—before the final product is made. The amount of recycled cotton used in fabric blends varies drastically, with the fabric’s recycled content comprising anywhere between 20% and 90% of the end product.
Uses of Recycled Cotton
Recycled cotton fabrics can be used for the same items and products as its conventional counterpart and is typically used in household textiles, clothing, and even paper. While recycling cotton is an expensive process, multiple sustainable fashion brands use recycled materials in their textile products:
Is Recycled Cotton Sustainable?
Compared to its conventional counterpart, recycled cotton is a more sustainable and eco-friendly fabric. It reduces the amount of textile waste that ends up in landfills and it reduces reliance on the growth and processing of cotton. In turn, that reduces pre-consumer waste and the amount of wasted water and harmful chemicals that make their way into the soil and oceans during the production of cotton textile products. It’s worth looking further into how environmentally friendly cotton recycling is.
The environmental impact of recycled cotton
As highlighted above, virgin cotton production is harmful to the environment, with 7% of herbicides, 16% of insecticides, and 4% of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizer used during the process. These chemicals contaminate not only the soil, but also water sources, making it an unsustainable and non-environmentally friendly practice. Cotton farming and production also use a great deal of water, both for irrigation and processing.
While the cotton recycling process doesn’t eliminate this completely, it reduces reliance on the growth and use of virgin cotton in products worldwide. Using recycled cotton extends the lifespan of cotton fibers, which reduces the irrigation water and other resources needed to create clothes and other products, making it more sustainable. For brands, it offers a more sustainable way to make new clothing without needing to invest in harmful and unsustainable practices.
The human impact of recycled cotton
While recycled cotton’s production process doesn’t involve many chemicals, it does involve adding dyes to the fabric to ensure consistency with color. As appealing as that makes the final product to consumers, it has a drastic impact on human health. Textile dyes are proven to cause respiratory diseases, contact dermatitis, and an increase in cancer rates among workers involved in the production process. Until safe ways of using these dyes are developed and implemented into factories worldwide, high rates of these diseases will persist.
Alternatives to Recycled Cotton
Renewcell and Circulose
While recycled cotton is a more sustainable alternative to its counterpart, it’s not the only one. Renewcell is a notable brand that focuses on making fabric out of recycled clothing. Based in Sweden and specializing in sustainable clothing, Renewcell has invented Circulose, which creates clothing out of cellulose waste material.
In contrast to recycled cotton, all kinds of textile products and old garments, not just cotton ones, can be used in this process—even jeans—and it’s more suitable for large-scale production. The process can also be applied to recycled cotton itself, so it can be recycled again and again, further enhancing its overall sustainability.
It’s worth noting, however, that this production process uses some harmful materials, although a closed-loop process minimizes their impact. Such a process captures the water and chemicals used in creating a fabric and reuses it in a subsequent batch, with some brands boasting a 95% efficiency rate.
Recycled cotton vs. organic cotton
Certified organic cotton has boomed in popularity, thanks to the fact that it has a low environmental footprint and uses sustainable best practices in its production process. It’s seen as a more eco-friendly option than conventional cotton because it releases 42% fewer carbon emissions during production and retains more moisture in the soil, reducing the need for large amounts of water.
Because organic cotton is such a sustainable material, it might be more environmentally friendly than recycled cotton. Though the latter reduces the overall need for more cotton production in general, it still relies on textile waste being recycled and reused. Recycled cotton still needs conventional cotton—and its harmful production practices. It also can’t be recycled indefinitely, meaning more of the original product needs to be created to make more recycled cotton. That doesn’t appear to be a problem with certified organic cotton.
Of course, combining organic cotton with the cotton recycling process results in the best-case scenario for improving cotton’s role in textile industry sustainability.
Textiles come with numerous certification standards, with recycled cotton being no exception. Though the fabric itself can be considered environmentally friendly because of its recycled nature, recycled cotton with certain certifications is guaranteed to have gone the extra mile in its production. Consumers can rest assured that it’s sustainable and eco-friendly, with multiple organizations offering such accreditation to manufacturers.
Global Recycled Standard
A voluntary and worldwide standard, the Global Recycled Standard looks at the full production process and chain of custody involved in creating recycled cotton. It outlines best practices across chemical usage and environmental and social impacts, with the underlying goal being to increase recycled material usage across all industries. Products with this certification, including recycled cotton, are guaranteed to have the amount of recycled material it claims to have.
Oeko-Tex’s Standard 100
One of the leading textile certifications focused on harmful substances in manufacturing, Oeko-Tex’s Standard 100 is used across the footwear and apparel industries. It takes regulated and unregulated substances into account while also extending sustainability and environmental best practices. Oeko-Tex certification also ensures manufacturers are complying with socially responsible working conditions across the supply chain.
Oeko-Tex’s certification process includes testing for regulated materials, such as nickel and formaldehyde, as well as those that aren’t yet regulated but may pose a harm to human health. Depending on the use of the textile, Oeko-Tex includes up to 100 parameters in its testing procedures, hence the “Standard 100” name. To date, the certification has been taken up by “14,000 manufacturers, brands, and retailers in nearly 100 countries.”
Recycled fibers boast being more sustainable and environmentally friendly than their conventional counterparts, and cotton is no different. Cotton recycling still requires cotton farming and textile processing, though, so it might not be the most sustainable option, unless combined with organic cotton farming.
But by reducing post-consumer waste in general, cotton recycling enhances the sustainability of the textile industry. It may not be much, but it’s a start.
Is recycled cotton durable?
Because of its recycled nature, it’s easy to assume that recycled cotton isn’t durable. Depending on the process used to make the fabric, it can be as durable as conventional cotton, if not more so. Its durability can also be enhanced when it’s blended with other materials, such as bamboo or rayon.
Recycled cotton does have a problem with longevity, however. Like other natural fibers, it isn’t abrasion or tear resistant, so it can be ripped or torn easily, especially when wet, so take care when handling the fiber. Recycled cotton also isn’t mold or fungus resistant, which may affect its durability and lifespan.
Is recycled cotton 100% cotton?
While recycled cotton can be made from 100% cotton, it’s typically blended with another fabric when being made into textile products. Many clothes, home textiles, and other items that contain recycled cotton comprise between 20% and 90% recycled cotton.
Is recycled cotton sustainable?
Recycled cotton is a more sustainable and eco-friendly fabric than its conventional counterpart, since it reduces the need to create more cotton to make clothing and reduces the cotton waste in landfills, as well as needing 80% less water to produce. It’s not the most eco-friendly cotton fabric, however, with certified organic cotton boasting better sustainability and environmental friendliness.
As it can’t be recycled indefinitely, recycled cotton relies on more cotton being produced so it can consistently be recycled, making it one of the less sustainable options in the long term. In the short term, it can eliminate conventional cotton from landfills, although switching to certified organic cotton would be a better long-term solution.
How do you care for recycled cotton fabric?
Caring for recycled cotton is quite easy, although it takes a certain amount of care to prevent shrinkage and tearing while being washed, similar to conventional cotton. I recommend that you wash recycled cotton at 30 degrees Celsius or lower while avoiding the use of laundry detergents that contain harsh or harmful chemicals. You should also avoid putting recycled fabrics in the dryer because the extra heat could harm the cotton and cause shrinkage and degradation of the fabric.