Cotton fills our home through both reusable and single-use products.
The clothing that we wear and the towels that we use are commonly made from cotton, as of course are cotton balls, cotton swabs, and even some coffee filters.
You’re sure to go through a lot of single-use cotton products, but even cotton clothing and other textiles don’t last forever.
Once a cotton product has run its course, you may be wondering if you can recycle it along with your other recyclables?
Some cotton is recyclable, but not through your curbside recycling program. But there are also some cotton products that aren’t recyclable at all.
What factors determine whether or not cotton can be recycled and how?
We’ll explain more in this article.
Is Cotton Recyclable?
Technically, all cotton could be recycled. But it’s not easy or feasible to recycle some products that are made from cotton.
Thanks to a growing interest in manufacturing and purchasing sustainable clothing and other products, recycled cotton is becoming more commonly used to make textiles.
Recycled cotton used for textiles includes cotton that was recycled from raw materials as well as cotton textiles that have been remanufactured into new products.
But that doesn’t mean that just anybody can recycle their cotton textiles, nor does it mean that you can just toss cotton clothing and towels into the recycling bin.
There are two main sources of cotton that can be recycled: pre-consumer and post-consumer.
1. Pre-Consumer Cotton
Pre-consumer cotton includes the scraps of cotton fabric that have been leftover from making textiles.
This is the most recycled type of cotton because it is easier to recycle.
Textile manufacturers can pre-sort their scraps based on the appearance and texture of the fabric, so that recycling facilities don’t have to process it as much.
They also have larger quantities of cotton that can be recycled than consumers do.
2. Post-Consumer Cotton
Post-consumer cotton includes the textiles that were made from cotton fabric- including clothing, towels, and other household items- and purchased by consumers.
It is technically recyclable, but it usually isn’t because it can’t be accepted through curbside recycling and most municipal facilities don’t have the means to recycle cotton textiles.
This is primarily due to the fact that these textiles are found in a variety of colors, sizes, and textures.
It would be too time-consuming and labor-intensive to sort and process all of the different cotton textiles that come from consumers.
What Cotton Products Aren’t Recyclable?
Usually, single-use cotton products can’t be recycled. This includes things such as cotton balls, swabs, and rounds.
The reason that they can’t be recycled is due to the fact that the fibers are often small and can’t withstand the recycling process.
Or, in the case of cotton swabs, they contain materials such as plastic that can’t be separated from the cotton.
But, most single-use cotton products are usually biodegradable and compostable as long as they don’t contain plastic.
So even though you can’t recycle them, you can still dispose of them in an eco-friendly way.
Is Cotton Hard to Recycle? (4 Reasons)
There are some challenges with recycling cotton, which is why a lot of cotton textiles either aren’t recycled or aren’t accepted by municipal recycling facilities.
Most of these challenges stem from the fact that like paper, cotton is a plant-based product.
Here are some of the more specific issues that come with trying to recycle cotton.
1. It Can’t Be Continuously Recycled
It’s due to this structure that natural fibers can only be recycled a certain number of times.
The amount of times that cotton can be recycled just depends on the size and strength of the original product.
Every time cotton fibers are recycled, they lose some of their length, strength, and durability.
In order to maintain its strength and durability when made into new yarn for textiles, cotton has to be blended with other materials. This usually can’t be done at a recycling facility.
Some of the fibers used are synthetic, and synthetic fibers aren’t environmentally friendly anyway.
2. The Recycling Stream Could Be Contaminated
When recycling cotton textiles, there is a greater chance for the recycling stream to be contaminated.
Let’s say, for instance, that you send a cotton shirt to recycling but you didn’t know that it wasn’t 100% cotton.
It could have been blended with another fiber, such as polyester or spandex.
These fibers can contaminate the recycling stream because they don’t have the same composition as cotton and can’t be recycled the same way.
That’s the main reason why cotton textiles aren’t accepted through curbside programs.
The recycling center would have to check each piece of clothing or fabric to see what it is made of. As you can imagine, this would take a lot of time.
When textile manufacturers recycle fabric scraps, they know what the fabric is made of and whether or not it can be recycled, so they sort it accordingly.
3. Recycled Cotton Has Limited Uses
The third challenge with recycling cotton is that there are limited uses as to the products you can make out of it.
The products you can make depend on the quantity of cotton you have, as well as the structure and durability of that cotton.
You want any product you make to be consistent in its structure and strength.
Oftentimes there isn’t enough cotton that has uniform fibers that can be used to make a specific product or multiples of that product.
4. Consumer Interest Is Low
Research shows that only 32% of customers are interested in purchasing clothing and other textiles made from recycled materials, and only 24% are willing to potentially pay more for it.
Without consumer interest, it is harder for textile manufacturers and retailers to get on board with using recycled materials.
If more companies and consumers were on board, there would be a greater need for recycling cotton and there would be more cotton available to recycle as a result.
What Products Can Be Made From Recycled Cotton?
Recycled cotton can be used to make textiles, such as t-shirts, towels, and reusable diapers.
Some may be made from 100% recycled materials, but others may only be partially made of recycled materials.
This coincides with one of the above challenges when they don’t have enough of a particular type of cotton fiber to make a whole garment.
Other products can be made of recycled cotton that don’t rely on the fibers being the same size and texture.
Examples of these products include:
- Stuffing (e.g. for stuffed animals and pillows)
- Cleaning rags
- Mop heads
What Are The Benefits of Recycled Cotton?
As with other recyclable materials, recycled cotton does have its benefits.
Most of these benefits don’t necessarily affect the product that is created, but rather they affect the environment.
The first benefit of recycling cotton is that fewer textiles make their way to a landfill.
In 2018, 11.3 million tons of textiles were received by landfills in the United States, making up almost 8% of the total amount of Municipal Solid Waste.
Of course, not all of those textiles were made from cotton, but the fact is still the same.
Recycling cotton textiles lowers the number of total textiles that go to landfills.
The second benefit is that recycling cotton uses less energy than producing cotton from raw materials.
This is because the cotton fibers don’t have to undergo as much processing the second time around.
Finally, depending on how cotton is transported to recycling facilities and processed, recycling it could potentially reduce some of the fossil fuels that are used as well as the greenhouse gases that are emitted compared to making new cotton products out of raw cotton fibers.
What Are the Disadvantages of Recycled Cotton?
Recycling isn’t perfect, no matter what material you’re recycling. There are a few disadvantages to recycling cotton as well.
The first disadvantage is the cost factor.
Because of the processing that is required to recycle cotton, as well as the amount of recycled cotton that is available, the cost for recycled cotton is often higher than the cost of cotton made from raw fibers.
The cost of using recycled cotton may prevent some manufacturers from using it because they can’t make a profit off of it or it just isn’t feasible for them to use it.
And as we already mentioned, a higher cost may prevent some consumers from purchasing products made from recycled cotton.
The second disadvantage is that the quality of recycled cotton is often lowered, which we’ve already touched on a little.
But the lower quality is due to the processes used for recycling it, in which the cotton fabric is shredded in a machine, which turns it into smaller fibers.
As a result, the fibers can sometimes break, which shortens the fibers and can weaken them, limiting the products that they can be used for.
If the quality of cotton is lower, it can also lower the quality of the clothing as a result.
For example, if the recycled cotton fibers themselves are less durable, then any clothing made from those fibers will be less durable as well.
That means that raw cotton fibers may be blended in as well, or synthetic fibers such as polyester may be blended in to increase durability.
Cotton fabrics are still relatively eco-friendly, but having to use synthetic fibers as well lowers the overall eco-friendliness of the textile.
How Much of Our Cotton Waste Gets Recycled?
In 2018, almost 15% of textiles produced were recycled in the U.S., which equals around 2.5 million tons.
But, textiles aren’t made only of cotton.
They can be made of other types of fibers as well, so it’s hard to say how much of that percentage is cotton.
Where Does Cotton Get Recycled?
Cotton can only be recycled at specialized textile recycling facilities.
These facilities are located in various places throughout several countries, but unfortunately, not everyone has access to them.
Textile recycling facilities usually accept textiles such as cotton in large quantities because it isn’t cost-effective to transport and process small amounts of cotton textiles like what a consumer would have.
Recycling textiles is usually only limited to the manufacturers of those textiles, and not every textile manufacturer participates in recycling their scraps and leftovers.
Can You Put Cotton in the Recycle Bin?
Usually, as a consumer you can’t put cotton into your recycling bin.
Remember that your cotton textiles will be a variety of colors and textures, which will need to be sorted before recycling.
Most municipal facilities don’t accept it because they don’t have the labor or equipment needed to process it, nor can they afford the expense of it.
How to Dispose of Cotton Products
If you can’t dispose of cotton with your other recyclables, you’re probably wondering how you can dispose of it.
How you dispose of cotton products will mostly depend on the type of product.
With single-use cotton products such as cotton balls, the easiest option is to throw them away.
They will go to a landfill where they will eventually biodegrade.
However, this is not the most ideal or eco-friendly method when there are better ways.
If the handle is plastic, you’ll have to just throw them away because they can’t be recycled.
With cotton textiles, you don’t want to send them to a landfill if you can help it.
They are often made with larger and thicker pieces of fabric and will take longer to biodegrade.
But, there are ways that they can be reused or repurposed.
For example, you can cut up an old cotton t-shirt and turn it into cleaning rags.
Or, you can donate your cotton clothing and textiles – and all textiles, for that matter – to a secondhand shop so that someone else can wear or use it.
Some clothing retailers will also have events where you can donate your old clothing to them.
They will recycle them, and will sometimes even offer discounts on new clothing as a thank you.
Well-known retailers that participate in textile recycling include:
- The North Face
But, that list is definitely not all-inclusive, as there are plenty of other companies that participate as well.
Although some cotton products are recyclable, it is not always easy for you and me to do so due to the cost and amount of processing involved.
Recycling cotton is typically reserved for textile manufacturers who have a lot of scraps to get rid of and have the resources to do so.
But just because you can’t recycle cotton doesn’t mean you have to throw it away.
There are ways that you can repurpose it, or you can donate it to be used by someone else.
You can also consider supporting companies that use recycled cotton products in order to increase consumer interest, or donate your used clothing to retailers that participate in recycling it.