New roads for a sustainable textile: biodegradation and composting.

Materials and Products

Textile sector is always looking for new solutions to meet the growing need of environmentally sustainable productions and for this reason it try to follow approaches that come from other markets, such as packaging. In fact, after recyclable textiles, a new class of products is emerging: one of biodegradable and compostable textiles. The shift from textiles that are created to be reused or recycled to textiles that are intended to degrade without any impacts on the environment at the end of their life, represents a significant change and a technological and societal challenge.

Talking about environmental sustainability for textile productions, the usual topics are reduction in water consumption and energy, a lower use of chemicals, and an improvement of recycling approaches (such as to look for possible ways to reuse a material at its end of life or to design a product with the intention to recycle it). But now a new approach to textile sustainability is emerging: one based on biodegradation and composting. To make products that, at the end of their life, can be released in the environment and then totally decompose without negative impacts would represent a promising solution that does not replace the current recycling strategy but supports and completes it.

Biodegradation and composting are well known and widely used concepts in different sectors, such as packaging where it is clear the advantages in using consumables with no environmental impacts at the end of their life. Nevertheless, biodegradability and compostability aspects are still quite unknown in production sectors such as textiles, in particular by end users. This difficult in the application of these approaches is perhaps due to a low knowledge about the technical aspects behind the terms biodegradability and compostability. These words are often considered as synonyms, but they are actually different. Biodegradability defines the ability of a material to decompose into organic matter (compost), water, and carbon dioxide (or methane) when it is released in a specific environmental compartment and without any human intervention. On the other hand, compostability takes into account biodegradability itself but also other properties such as disintegration, absence of release of substances harmful to the environment during the process, and quality of the compost resulting from the biodegradation. Thus, compostability represents a more complete and significant characteristic respect to biodegradability. The added value related to compostability explains why today compostable materials are more widespread than biodegradable ones. This consideration can be extended to textiles too: a garment, or a generic piece of textile, that can be disposed as an organic urban or household waste, is more interesting in terms of environmental sustainability. This is true also for the final user that, ideally, could cultivate its own vegetables or flowers using the compost produced by itself starting from its disused clothes. Unfortunately, to reach this result would be not so easy considering textile products, where there is a large use of synthetic fibers and chemicals (which must remain on the material to meet functional needs) that could hinder biodegradation and composting. But today there is an increasing use of polymers with good biodegradability (e.g. PLA, polylactic acid) and chemicals (both dyes and finishing agents) with a low environmental impacts when they are released into the environment. This approach could represent a good starting point to obtain biodegradable and compostable textile products. It is here important to remember that the potential barriers to reach this goal are not only technological but also societal and linked to the markets needs: textile are still requested to be durable over the time both for consumer mentality and for the fulfilment of functional needs (color fastness, durable functionalities, material integrity over the time, etc.).

Like every material property that represent an added value for the market, it is necessary a specific analytical evaluation of the product to assess this property. In the case of biodegradability and compostability, a help come from the standards made for packaging, since today there are not specific standards for textiles. Currently, to assess biodegradation and composting ability of textiles, it is possible to follow the indications of EN 13432 Packaging. Requirements for packaging recoverable through composting and biodegradation. Test scheme and evaluation criteria for the final acceptance of packaging that specifies requirements and procedures to determine the compostability of a material. This assessment is time-consuming and expensive, but it is a must for those who want to create and valorize a sustainable product following an approach that is not based on recycling but on a complete degradation of the material with zero impacts on the environment.

Centrocot is aware of the importance to support textile companies to face this new challenge for a more sustainable economy and for this reason it is implementing new services for its costumers for textile products biodegradability and compostability assessment.



For more info, please contact:

  • Omar Maschi, PhD

Multisectoral Research and Innovation


Author: Omar Maschi

Multisectoral Research and Innovation Dept.