2 weeks or 500+ years? This Is How Long Your Clothes Take to Biodegrade

BY ROXY ALLNUTT

Diving into the environmental crisis caused by textile waste.

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11 NOV - 2022

It’s time to think about the true cost of your consumerism.

You know those old polyester pants you used to do yoga back in the day? Chucking them in the bin for being ratty and stretched to the point of no recognition involves 30 to 40 years of decomposition.

In the past two decades, the amount of clothing Americans have tossed has doubled from 7 million tonnes to 14 million tonnes. Unfortunately, in this fast-paced fashion-fuelled world, the average consumer buys a new garment every two months, and that item is likely to be worn just five times. As enjoyable as it may be, shopping under the influence of fast fashion comes at a high cost to the natural world.

You see, producing one cotton t-shirt requires 2,700 litres of water. The amount of water required to manufacture our clothing is something we usually don't give much thought to. Similar research estimates that producing one pair of jeans uses the same amount of water as a household uses for a whole year, which is a little under 7,000 litres. Read that again to let that sink in.

According to Upworthy, 95% of used textiles can actually be recycled or repurposed. So, to make it a rule, never toss your clothing. Just because an item cannot be worn again, doesn’t mean it has now been rendered useless. Your old PJ pants make great microfiber cloth substitutes, old hoodies make great pet blankets, etc. Follow Zero Waste New Zealand on Facebook for hundreds of repurposed clothing ideas.

To put things into perspective, we’ve listed the most common clothing materials and their biodegradation dates. There is so much stuff that our great grandparents wore that hasn't even biodegraded yet.

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Linen: 2 weeks

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Cotton: 1-5 months

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Wool: 3-6 months

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Viscose/rayon: 6 months - 1 year

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Silk: 12 months

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Nylon: 30-40 Years

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Leather: 50 years

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Natural Rubber: 80-100 Years

How many shoes have you tossed in your lifetime?

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Polyester: Up to 500+ Years

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Polymide: Up to 500+ years

Please note that bras are especially bad - so let them roam free!

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The time it takes to biodegrade depends a lot on the type of soil and the environment it’s in. So these timeframes are all under the most ideal conditions - and when can we count on soils being in the most ideal conditions?

Thankfully, many clothing brands and designers are starting to build sustainability paths to send less textile waste to landfills. Some maintain a zero-waste supply chain through mindful design and production. As a consumer, you can also help solve these issues by buying and wearing biodegradable fashion or clothes made from materials that decompose rapidly and naturally in a landfill. We strongly urge you to make mindful purchasing decisions as a consumer!
Sources: Close the loop, Brown Recycling, Common Objective Fibre Briefing

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