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Composting natural textiles: The breakdown!

Composting natural textiles: The breakdown!

Whether you have an old cotton t-shirt that is worn and torn or a linen kitchen towel that has been stained and strained, you may be wondering what the most environmentally friendly way to get rid of it is and how to do it. Here are few things to consider!

woman cutting a textile

Textile check.

The first thing you need to do before tossing in the towel (pun intended), is to ensure that it is truly made from a 100% natural fibre. These are:

  • Linen
  • Cotton
  • Ramie (a.k.a. grass linen or China grass)
  • Wool
  • Hemp
  • Bamboo
  • Silk
  • Cashmere
  • Lyocell (manmade but natural)

spool of linen

Remove the extras.

Sometimes, textiles come with tags, buttons, beads and other decorative objects that are not compostable. Most clothing tags are made from recycled plastic or polyester. These are synthetic fibres and must be cut off before composting. Always do a quick scan to ensure that you are solely putting natural fibres into the earth and nothing else.

shirt and scissors

Other things to keep in mind. 

  • Avoid composting blended fabrics as they could contain synthetic fibres that won’t break down easily.
  • Avoid composting fabric that has been substantially dry-cleaned, especially if you will use this compost to fertilize a veggie garden. Dry-cleaning is a toxic practice where a carcinogenic chemical (perchloroethylen or PERC) is used to treat the article of clothing.
  • Watch out for fabrics that may appear like their natural counterparts, such as chemically treated cotton, blended cotton and acrylics posing as wool.
  • Do not compost t-shirts with slogans or logos on them since these are usually printed with PVC and other plastic inks that will only do more harm than good.

woman with a camera

It’s not time to say good-bye just yet!

Before you go and pull an Edward Scissorhands on that old, stained t-shirt or towel, consider some alternative ways to use it prior to composting it. Here are some ideas:

  • Tear into strips and use them to tie your veggie plants such as tomatoes to supportive stakes.
  • Lay the fabric out flat under mulch for use as weed matting.
  • Create a tugging box for a toddler! Tear the old fabric into medium length pieces, dye using beet juice, turmeric and red cabbage and place into an old tissue box. Voila, you've got a toy that will bring lots of fun to your little one!
  • Cut into smaller pieces and use as a cleaning rag or, if you have one of those Swiffer floor cleaners, use the old t-shirt or towel as the mop piece instead of buying disposable Swiffer refills.
  • Use as a make-up remover cloth.
  • Tear into long pieces and tie them all together into one long strand. Tie-dye it and use for a tug-of-war game with the kids!
  • Cut into squares, dye different colours and use for musical chairs at an outdoor birthday party by laying them out into a large circle and having children sit on them when the music stops playing.

tomato plant

It’s compost time!

You have exhausted your options and are ready to say good-bye for good! Most of the compostable fabrics listed above will take anywhere from 6 months up to 1 year to decompose. Wool and bamboo may take up to 5 years! That’s still a lot better than the 200 years that polyester will be sitting in a landfill!

Here is the most effective way to compost your natural textiles:

  • Shred, tear or cut into smaller pieces. This will ensure that the fabric decomposes quickly.
  • Place into a hot compost for best results.
  • Ensure that the fabric makes up no more than 25% of your compost content.
  • If you don’t have a compost, you can burry random pieces around your garden.


A final word.

Today, fast fashion is responsible for huge amounts of waste when it comes to clothing! On average, we consume about 80 billion items of clothing each year. Most of the clothes we no longer want is thrown away. In fact, according to BBC, the average American throws away 37 kgs of clothing each year! This results in the clothing getting burned or overwhelming our landfills. It is up to us, the consumers, to buy responsibly by choosing fabrics that are made from natural fibres and, when possible, take advantage of up-cycling, second-hand shops as well as passing unwanted clothes down to a friend or a neighbour. Together, we can be part of the solution!

clothes on hangers


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