Recyclable fashion: T-shirts for the compost heap

Status: December 28, 2021 4:11 p.m.

Parts of the fashion industry strive for a green image and produce biodegradable textiles. Because so far clothes made of synthetic fibers in particular have had a disposal problem.

It can be that simple: T-shirt worn long enough, no longer pleases – off to the compost. In six to twelve months, the substance is expected to decompose and dissolve in the ground with pleasure. Back to mother earth. The Swiss fashion brand Calida is using it to advertise its “100% Nature” product line. This is made possible because bustiers, underpants and T-shirts are woven from the “Tencel” fiber, which is made from wood.

Circular economy is the goal

This means that the underwear manufacturer is not alone in the growing market for sustainable fashion. The jeans brands Lee and Closed also advertise with compostable jeans. Synthetic fibers such as elastane, which otherwise take 100 years to dissolve, are being replaced by the biodegradable fiber “Coreva”. This should also decompose within six months. And non-compostable parts such as rivets or zippers are dispensed with, or they can be removed, as with Lee. The British company Hedoïne now even offers alternatives to nylon tights made from organic materials, such as those made from seaweed.

The question arises whether this is the right way to make fashion really sustainable. In fact, there is hardly anything about traditional fashion that seems environmentally friendly: dyeing, bleaching, the production of synthetic petroleum-based fibers, washing with high energy consumption and water consumption – all of these make clothes production a dirty business.

With the certification according to “Cradle to Cradle” – translated it means “from cradle to cradle back” – fashion companies are trying to counteract this. This means: The certified products are made from harmless materials and can ultimately be returned to nature’s cycle or recycled again and again.

Nora Sophie Griefahn from the non-profit “Cradle to Cradle” NGO sees biodegradability as just one criterion. “For us it is important that companies develop a closed circular economy. For this it is elementary that they manufacture their products in such a way that they can actually be recycled after use.” This means that they should be produced from materials without the use of harmful chemicals, the particles of which biodegrade in the environment. After their use, they could be recycled several times in the sense of the circular economy or, at the very end of their usefulness, theoretically disintegrate in the soil without harming nature.

Composting is only a partial solution

Do compostable materials really have a future, or are they just a niche product? It is also clear to textile expert Ellen Bendt from the Niederrhein University of Applied Sciences that fashion must become more sustainable. However, from their point of view, compostable textiles are not suitable as the new gold standard. Tencel and Lycell are much more environmentally friendly than cotton, but in this country it is not allowed to throw clothing on the compost, according to Bendt.

Other biodegradable fibers such as polylactic acids could not even decompose without special composting facilities, and they do not yet exist in Germany. Therefore, the existing collection and sorting systems would have to be expanded and adapted and the recycling processes further developed. “What would be much more sensible is to recycle the garments for as long as possible. Otherwise, any energy and raw materials that have been put into them will be lost.”

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