Fashion waste is an extremely problematic social and environmental issue. Old clothes and other discarded textiles are piling up in landfills at an alarming rate.
The fast fashion industry and the overproduction of disposable clothing are responsible for tons of textile waste that endanger the environment and human health.
16.9 million tons of used textile wastes are generated each year in the United States, as reported by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). And that amount has doubled over the last 20 years.
The average American throws away 70 pounds of clothing every year. According to Euromonitor, Americans don't wear clothes for very long, around a quarter of the global average.
Thankfully, many clothing brands and designers are starting to implement sustainability practices 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.
To help you make mindful purchasing decisions as a well-informed consumer, here is everything you need to know about how long it takes clothes to biodegrade.
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Cotton decomposes in one week to five months in landfills. It's a natural material, bio-based, biodegradable, compostable, and recyclable.
Cotton is still the most widely used natural fiber worldwide and one of the cheapest to produce. And it's the second most used fiber for garment production behind polyester globally.
The cotton fiber used for textiles comes from cotton plant bolls. It's processed and combed into yarn. But the cotton plant requires tons of water, pesticides, and fertilizers to grow.
Linen decomposes in two weeks to six months in landfills. It's a natural fiber, biodegradable, recyclable, and one of the most environmentally friendly and socially responsible materials.
Linen represents less than 1% of all textile fibers consumed worldwide. Despite its low availability, many fashion brands and designers choose linen fabric to create eco-friendly, beautiful, and luxurious collections.
Linen comes from a natural and renewable resource: the flax plant. It requires very little water to grow, much less than cotton unless the weather is warm and dry.
Hemp decomposes in four weeks to eight months in landfills. It's one of the most environmentally friendly fibers in the world. Hemp clothes are natural, soft, breathable, lightweight, and durable.
Hemp is a natural and renewable resource. Hemp plants grow quicker than most trees in temperate climates.
Hemp also requires little water to grow and almost no pesticides or fertilizers. Textiles made from hemp fibers are natural, bio-based, and biodegradable.
Jute decomposes in four to twenty months in landfills. It's a natural fiber, very durable, 100% biodegradable, compostable and recyclable.
Jute fiber comes from the outer skin of the jute plant (the stem and ribbon). And jute plants don't require any fertilizers or pesticides to grow, as opposed to cotton.
Jute is a very cost-effective raw material for clothing. It has a low environmental impact, high density, strength, durability, heat resistance, and moisture retention.
Ramie decomposes in six to twenty-four months in landfills. It's an eco-friendly fabric revolutionizing the fashion industry.
Ramie is strong, durable, lightweight, and breathable but not very flexible or elastic. The natural material makes a fantastic substitute for cotton. It's very versatile but isn't popular because it remains expensive.
Lyocell decomposes in six to twenty-four months in landfills. It's an eco-friendly and sustainable material for clothing. Lyocell is a semi-synthetic fiber, also called regenerated cellulosic fiber.
Lyocell primarily comes from cellulose extracted from renewable resources such as wood.
Cellulose biodegrades quickly under six weeks with optimal soil moisture of -33 kPa and soil temperature of approximately 25 ºC. But the more fabrics are treated, the slower they decompose.
And lyocell clothing requires complex production methods and various processing stages using tons of water, energy, and chemicals.
Modal decomposes in six to twenty-four months in landfills. It's a type of rayon, a regenerated cellulosic fiber, like viscose, acetate, cupro, and lyocell.
Modal fiber production also uses filaments of cellulose made of wood pulp extracted from trees. It's the second generation of cellulosic fibers and a modified version of viscose with higher tenacity.
Viscose decomposes in six to twenty-four months in landfills. It's often used in the fashion industry to make affordable clothing.
Viscose production also requires natural and renewable raw materials, filaments of cellulose made of wood pulp extracted from trees.
Compared to natural fibers such as cotton, viscose has lower costs and water requirements.
Polyester decomposes in hundreds of years in landfills. It's the most widely used fiber worldwide and represents 52% of global fiber production.
Recycled polyester is a more environmentally friendly alternative to the synthetic raw material made from oil. Its manufacturing process begins with the collection of PET plastic bottles.
Even when recycled, polyester isn't renewable, biodegradable, or compostable. And as polyester fibers break down, they release toxic chemicals and greenhouse gases into the environment.
Nylon decomposes in hundreds of years in landfills. It's cheap to produce, but it isn't the most environmentally friendly fiber.
Nylon is a synthetic polymer made from petroleum-based plastics. It's usually blended with other natural or synthetic fibers such as spandex or elastane to make it more elastic.
Nylon isn't biodegradable or compostable. It also increases our consumption of fossil fuels and dependency.
Leather decomposes in twenty to forty years in landfills. It's a material made from the skin of an animal and commonly used in the fashion industry.
Unfortunately, leather tanning is very destructive to the environment, ecosystems, and human health.
The processing of animal-derived textiles like leather requires tons of harmful chemicals that pollute rivers, water sources, and soils when released untreated into the nearby environment.
Wool decomposes in two to five years in landfills. It's a material that grows naturally on sheep and is used in fashion to produce warm clothes.
However, wool is one of the five most environmentally damaging fiber worldwide, as reported by the Global Fashion Agenda.
Wool processing requires a lot of chemicals. Pesticides and insecticides are also used on sheep to keep them free of parasites.
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About the Author: Alex Assoune
Alex Assoune (MS) is a global health and environmental advocate. He founded Panaprium to inspire others with conscious living, ethical, and sustainable fashion. Alex has worked in many countries to address social and environmental issues. He speaks three languages and holds two Master of Science degrees in Engineering from SIGMA and IFPEN schools.