Can you compost clothes? It depends…

  • Date: May 13, 2022

A lot of clothes end up in landfill. Here in the U.S., the average person puts approximately 37 kilograms in the trash every single year. Far from ideal as we try to cut down on our waste.  We always recommend finding another use for them when you have changed your style – either donating them to charity or re-using them in some way. However, we understand that this is not always possible. What are the other options available? Can you compost clothes?! Yes and no. Let’s take a closer look…

Firstly, are clothes biodegradable?

To be composted, clothes must have the ability to biodegrade. This is when micro-organisms break down an item and, essentially it return to nature. Clothes made from 100% natural fibers can are biodegradable. This makes sense – to be able to return to nature, it has to come from nature to begin with! Commonly used fabrics such as wool, cotton, hemp and linen will all biodegrade. The length of time to biodegrade does vary between fabrics, but in optimal conditions most will be fully broken down within a matter of months by the hungry little microbes! However, in sub-optimal conditions it can take significantly longer. Landfills, for instance, have limited air flow and do not have sufficient nutrients or water. Even natural fabric clothes can take a long, long time to biodegrade there.

As you may have guessed, synthetic clothes (or blends of natural and synthetic) will not biodegrade. These include fabrics such as nylon and polyester which are, essentially, plastic. These will eventually break down, but this is not biodegradation – micro-organisms do not play a role. Plastics just break down into smaller and smaller pieces and can cause chaos in the environment.  

Can you compost clothes?

Composting is a great way to divert items from landfill whilst creating a nutrient-rich fertilizer for your garden. It will save you money and help the planet at the same time. A win-win!

Unfortunately, all biodegradable items cannot be composted. For example, if a garment contains heavy chemicals it may contaminate the pile. Everything that is compostable is biodegradable but not everything that is biodegradable is compostable! Thankfully, all natural clothes materials are suitable for the compost pile.

If you were not aware – composting ingredients fall into two main categories. Nitrogen-rich items are known as ‘greens’ and include food scraps and fresh grass clippings. The other main type of ingredient is carbon-rich (‘browns’). Natural fabric clothes, as well as items such as dry leaves and carboard, fall into this carbon-rich type.

Ensuring that you have a suitable mix of ‘browns’ and ‘greens’ is important when composting anything – including clothes. Lots of different ratios are suggested but sticking to a 1:1 ratio should work well but monitor and adapt it as you go. Composting, especially when a newbie, can be a bit trial-and-error. For some beginners set-up tips, have a look here.

Things to consider when composing clothes….

Generally, when composting anything, you should cut it up into smaller pieces beforehand. It is not completely essential, but it will speed the process up. It simply gives the micro-organisms a larger surface area to work on and you can spread it throughout the pile too.

Perhaps obvious, but worth stating anyway (!) – remove any extras! Bacteria will not munch on the button from your pair of jeans or your hoody zip. It is also important to be aware that fully natural items, such as 100% cotton, may have synthetic thread. So you may find some thread remaining in the pile when your cotton shirt is long gone. Don’t worry, just sift it out – no harm done!

Unwanted chemicals can cause havoc in the compost pile. They can contaminate the pile and ultimately end up in amongst your produce. For example, clothes that have been regularly dry cleaned it will likely have remnants of chemical that you don’t want in there. Some composters may still add these but only use the resulting compost on non-edible plants. However, as always, it is your call – don’t ever add anything that you are uncomfortable about.

The bottom line

Finding another way to dispose of clothes is important as we seek to reduce landfill waste.  Although we always recommend re-using/recycling/donating as the first port of call when disposing of clothes, those made from natural fibers can also be composted. Where you can, avoid buying synthetic clothing where possible. As well as not having the ability to biodegrade, they also tend to have a more significant impact on the environment all round. Natural fiber clothing will be more expensive – but will have much less environmental cost long term.