Is burlap biodegradable? Can it be composted? It depends!

  • Date: May 14, 2022

Burlap is a wonderfully versatile fabric. From creating rustic looking crafts to its multiple uses in the backyard, it is likely to find a use in almost all households across the country. Although, we always recommend that you get the maximum use out of your items before disposing of them, unfortunately nothing lasts forever. Is burlap biodegradable and can it be composted? Or is it destined for many years in the landfill? Well, that depends on the type you opt for. Let’s take a closer look…

What is burlap made of – is it synthetic or natural?

Burlap, or hessian to those out with North America, is a course woven fabric. It is typically made from the jute plant but can also be made from hemp or flax – all natural fibers.   

However, burlap is not always made from natural fibers. Synthetic, or faux, burlap – made from polyester – is also on the market. Polyester is essentially made from plastic, so it has questionable eco-friendly credentials. However, it is popular – it does not have a scent or shed fibers unlike natural burlap.

Is burlap biodegradable?

An item is classed as biodegradable if it can be broken down naturally by micro-organisms. Natural burlap falls into this category. Worst-case-scenario, if it did end up in landfill it would not persist indefinitely like some materials. Unfortunately, faux/synthetic burlap will not biodegrade since polyester is a plastic.

Is burlap compostable?

When an item comes to the end of its usable life, composting is a great way to avoid it getting added to the growing landfill pile. You may think that since natural burlap is biodegradable it automatically qualifies for the compost pile – this is a common misconception. The terms biodegradable and compostable are not interchangeable.

For biodegradable items to be fit for composting they must be able to contribute to a nutrient-rich compost product at the end. It also must not be laden with chemicals that will ultimately harm your garden when the compost is used.

Natural burlap, or hessian, fits the bill. Composting materials fall into two main categories – ‘brown’ and ‘green’. ‘Brown’ materials are to those that are rich in carbon (for example, cardboard and dried leaves) whilst ‘green’ ingredients are rich in nitrogen (for example, plant clippings and coffee grounds). Burlap contributes to the ‘browns’ side of the ratio.

To maintain a healthy pile, you should have am suitable mix of both browns and greens. Too many browns and you could end up with a dry, ant-infested pile whilst too many greens could cause excess heat and even spontaneous combustion (!)

A range of different ratios are suggested in the composting world but a 1:1 ratio should work well. It is a lot simpler to manage too – no math involved. Although, since no two compost piles on the planet are the same, it can be a case of trial-and-error. If you are a novice when it comes to composting, we have answered some of the most frequently asked composting-related questions here.

Things to consider when composting burlap…

It is important to determine whether your burlap is synthetic or natural before you pop it in the pile. It may not be obvious – faux burlap often replicates the real stuff identically. If you are not sure, there is a very simple test you do to check. Light a small piece of the burlap in question with a match or lighter. If it is made from polyester, it will generally melt but not produce a flame – a melted, gooey substance will remain. On the other hand, natural burlap will generally burn with a flame and turn to an ash.  As always, when dealing with flames, be careful!

When composting anything, from crab shells to linen, it is important that microbes in the pile get sufficient surface area to work their magic. When it comes to burlap, simply cut it into strips and evenly distribute it within the pile to jumpstart the process. If you do not have any scissors to hand, you can still add it to the pile – it will still result in a rich compost. You may just need a little extra patience!

The bottom line

Burlap is one of the most eco-friendly fabrics out there. Its strength and durability make it usable time and time again. After use, the natural variety, will contribute to a nutrient-rich compost – helping your garden thrive but also avoiding landfill too. Everybody wins when it comes to composting. The best advice for faux burlap? Avoid!