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Composting textiles? Is Rayon a compostable textile?

 
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Rayon is a manufactured textile made from cellulose.  Popular forums of rayon these days are soy-silk and bamboo silk, but you may know it in its original forum, viscose rayon (or just rayon).  It's a popular fabric because it has many of the beneficial qualities of cotton and silk, but easy to care for in the modern washer and dryer.  It doesn't wrinkle easily.  

It is also listed as a compostable fibre.

I experimented with a bamboo cloth and cotton/rayon blends.  I have not yet been able to compost this fibre.  I tried heat composting, worm, trenching, and regular back yard compost bin.  Some of these scraps of fabric are over 10 years old and they are intact!  I would expect something labelled 'compostable' to break down quicker than that. When trenched, cotton usually degrades in less than two years and wool usually takes one to three years, depending on the condition.  It takes significantly less time to heat and worm compost these fabrics.  

Am I just having bad luck or is this not a compostable fibre?

When they say that Rayon is compostable, what do they mean?  

I would love your help to gather some anecdotal evidence on this topic.  
 
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r ranson wrote:Rayon is a manufactured textile made from cellulose.  Popular forums of rayon these days are soy-silk and bamboo silk, but you may know it in its original forum, viscose rayon (or just rayon).  It's a popular fabric because it has many of the beneficial qualities of cotton and silk, but easy to care for in the modern washer and dryer.  It doesn't wrinkle easily.  

It is also listed as a compostable fibre.

I experimented with a bamboo cloth and cotton/rayon blends.  I have not yet been able to compost this fibre.  I tried heat composting, worm, trenching, and regular back yard compost bin.  Some of these scraps of fabric are over 10 years old and they are intact!  I would expect something labelled 'compostable' to break down quicker than that. When trenched, cotton usually degrades in less than two years and wool usually takes one to three years, depending on the condition.  It takes significantly less time to heat and worm compost these fabrics.  

Am I just having bad luck or is this not a compostable fibre?

When they say that Rayon is compostable, what do they mean?  

I would love your help to gather some anecdotal evidence on this topic.  



I don't know if it's exactly the same thing but I used bamboo knitting yarn (sock weight) to tie up my tomatoes one year (hey it was a horrible shade of pink, no use for it!) and it survived the season without getting too weak. I know that a lot of the compostable plastics are not compostable at home only in large commercial operations, I guess that's due to heating and possibly length of time at high heat.
 
r ranson
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I would also like to hear about personal experiences with composting other textiles.  
Have you taken part in the underwear test?  

 
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Interesting question.. I am always looking for more things that can go in the ground vs the trash...

I found this article:

https://shopvirtueandvice.com/blogs/news/do-sustainable-fashionistas-buy-rayon-the-answer-may-surprise-you


Which links this study:

https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/4fe5/ebfdb75bcbe84202b8fd5fab95b384f827f0.pdf

The conclusion is very permie... 'it depends', apparently, on what type of Rayon.

But, their worst results still seemed fast enough to call compostable at 4 month halflife.. from essentially simple burial.


Your 10 year old samples, how much of that time was actively composting in some way?

Is it possible they are not pure rayon but mixed with some other fabric(other than the cotton) despite the labelling?

I wonder if some other aspect(toxins in dye killing microbes?) could retard decomposition subatantially? I wouldn't really expect something like that from old, many times washed fabric, but I haven't thought of any more plausible possibilities...
 
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I don't know about compost ability. I think the real environmental issue with rayon is effluent water from the manufacturing process. It's probably the most polluting product that I've ever seen put forward as being environmentally friendly. The chemicals used in manufacture, often make it into lakes and rivers.
 
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r ranson wrote:I would also like to hear about personal experiences with composting other textiles.  
Have you taken part in the underwear test?  



Don't know about the 'underwear test' but I always wear cotton singlets - perhaps considered old school these days, but grew up wearing them and feel undressed without.

When they inevitably wear out, usually on the upper back, I split them open and tear into strips for perfect, semi elastic tomato and cucumber ties.

They actually last two or so seasons, which is pretty damn good considering the rather flimsy nature.

After that, they are weak from weather, mould and UV so get tossed into the compost bin.

It still takes a good moist bin to make them disappear for good.

 
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As with food, I think that if the fabric in question requires extensive processing in complicated processes, that fabric isn't going to be as environmentally friendly as a fabric that is nearly ready, or in fibrous form, at least, at harvest.

Yes, traditional plant-based fabrics usually require retting, but the chemical involved in that process is usually water, plus whatever the plant brings with it.

If I had a surplus of "compostable" fabrics that don't seem to want to compost, I would consider incineration at RMH temperatures, much hotter than necessary to pyrolise plastics without creating dioxins, so that if they were mislabeled and contained synthetics, no worries. I would also do some experiments with a number of socks, each with bedding for any types of insect that could eat it, including mealworms and wax worms, and maybe african hissing cockroaches. If one of those devours the fabric preferentially to its bedding, I would know what to stock my rayon digester with.

I would also do a toxicity experiment using the fabric, worm bedding, worms, and kitchen scraps suitable for red worms, including coffee grounds and squash peels. If there were anything toxic to soil micro- and macrobiota, the worms would die off. If the fabric was worm safe, I would probably consider saving it for use as wicking material in the garden or in houseplants.

-CK
 
r ranson
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I think there are a lot of ways we could go with this conversation.  I'm not a fan of rayon for many reasons.  However, it is being presented as a stepping stone for people interested in eco-friendly fashion because it is compostable.  But is it?

What I need at this moment are personal examples of composting fabric, especially different rayons.  Rayon has been presented to me as a compostable fabric but I have no personal success composting it.  But that doesn't mean it isn't possible to transform it into soil at home, merely that I haven't been able to.

 
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Dillon Nichols wrote:Interesting question.. I am always looking for more things that can go in the ground vs the trash...

I found this article:

https://shopvirtueandvice.com/blogs/news/do-sustainable-fashionistas-buy-rayon-the-answer-may-surprise-you



This is a great resource!  The best and easiest to understand summary of rayon I've found so far.  Thank you!


Dillon Nichols wrote:

Which links this study:

https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/4fe5/ebfdb75bcbe84202b8fd5fab95b384f827f0.pdf



This is the method they used in the study.  

For the field biodegradation study, rayon, cotton, and Tencel® fabrics were cut into 25 × 25-cm units and placed in tulle having 1 × 2-mm mesh openings. The tulle, which was resistant to degradation, was used to hold the fabric specimens intact as much as possible during the degradation process. The enclosed fabric samples were buried in a Captina silt loam soil (fine-silty, siliceous, active, mesic Typic Fragiudult) that had been tilled to a depth of 15 cm. The fabric was buried at a depth of 10 cm and oriented parallel to the soil surface. Plots were maintained vegetation free by an application of the herbicide R@#%$^up®



I feel that this is probably not a good reproduction of home garden soil.  I know that certain herbicides, especially the one mentioned in the article, degrade cellulose.  They did some pretty extensive tests with R--- and flax and found that this damaged the structure of the fibre causing it to degrade quickly.  I don't want to get into the nitty-gritty of that, but I'm mentioning it because it probably had an effect on the results of the study.  

The study doesn't mention the kind of fabric used.  Woven, knit, were the fabrics the same weight?  Were these fabrics pre-treated for retail (many fabrics are required by law to be treated with flame inhibitors unless they are naturally flame retardant like wool or silk).


I'm feeling like I have more questions than answers after reading this.  I want to learn more about what this fabric breaks down into and how it affects soil microbiology.  I also feel I want to hear more about personal experiences with these fabrics in the home setting.  Anecdotal evidence is powerful because it gives us a starting place.  

Dillon Nichols wrote:

The conclusion is very permie... 'it depends', apparently, on what type of Rayon.



Yep!

Dillon Nichols wrote:
Your 10 year old samples, how much of that time was actively composting in some way?

Is it possible they are not pure rayon but mixed with some other fabric(other than the cotton) despite the labelling?

I wonder if some other aspect(toxins in dye killing microbes?) could retard decomposition subatantially? I wouldn't really expect something like that from old, many times washed fabric, but I haven't thought of any more plausible possibilities...



They are still identifiably intact pieces of cloth.  Mostly bamboo knit fabric.  Mostly black.  Not much more degraded than when I composted them although the seam thread is coming apart for some of them.  I just reburried a bunch under a massive pile of manuer.  That usually destroys transforms anything organic into soil.  We'll know in 3 or 4 years when I dig there again if it's gone.  
 
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Three or four years seems like a long time to give it. Some plastic will degrade in that time.

I'm flying to the Philippines this evening. I will try to get my hands on some banana fiber for you to try. Then if you like it, I'm willing to send it by the ton. So far as I can tell, it's the most under-utilized fiber crop on Earth. And it's a byproduct, so no real cost of production.

Neem tree bark is used to make some traditional fabrics. I'll be gone three months, so plenty of time to research what is available. I'm just going to try to grab a little piece of everything exotic and offer them to ms Ranson to test for us.

Currently, the people there, wear polyester and all the other stuff coming out of China. Meanwhile, the Japanese make kimonos from banana fiber.
 
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r ranson wrote:I would also like to hear about personal experiences with composting other textiles.  
Have you taken part in the underwear test?  



When I made my son's garden beds, I used 100% cotton shirts as a weed barrier to keep the blackberries from growing through. Evidently, the threads on those shirts are NOT cotton, because all I find now (3 years latter) is annoying string. When I try to dig down, or sometimes when I pull up a carrot, I pull up a strand of string. Really rather maddening....
 
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Nicole, sorry to be off topic, but were the cotton shirts effective in stopping the blackberries?
 
Nicole Alderman
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They didn't really do any better than the layers of grocery bags I put down in other areas. (I'd run out of paper sacks, which is why I turned to using cloth.) Both the paper sacks and the cloth slowed down the blackerries, but they still made it through (though smaller and weaker and easier to pull out). I think the cloth decomposes before the blackberries die. At least that's what happens with my paper sacks--three months after I put them down, they're gone.

Granted, using thicker cloth, or more layers of cloth, might work as a better weed barrier, but that might also cut off the oxygen to the lower layers of the soil, making things anaerobic down there and less full of soil life. It'd probably slow down the decomposition of the cloth a LOT if it's anaerobic. Paul told a story about the downsides of sheetmulch:

Paul Wheaton wrote:Last spring I visited somebody's garden where an apple tree was doing poorly.  After digging around a little, a layer of newspaper was found about an inch under the soil.  It was about a quarter of an inch thick and had apparently been put down to kill weeds about five years earlier.  It killed the weeds.  And it was making the tree sick.  And it wasn't breaking down.



If you're making a deep garden bed, it might be worth it to make an impenetrable, anaerobic weed barrier with cloth. But, you probably don't want to do that if the bed is shallow or  if you're making a barrier on top of the soil covered by mulch.
 
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No, I didn't do the underwear test. And I did never bury any rayon or viscose. But early in 2015, I buried a cardboard box with some old cotton clothes (rags) under my new herb spiral. That was my 'solution' for 'feeding the soil' back then. My compost heap wasn't ready, I started it late in 2014.
Your post makes me curious ... would there be anything left in the soil there of that cardboard and cotton? But I don't consider getting the herbs (all perennials) out of there, so we won't know the answer.

About rayon/viscose: if anyone says it's 'sustainable' (or even 'a natural fibre') I say it isn't, because it's produced by a chemical process. Even if it's made of bamboo, trees, or whatever plant-based material.
 
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Two years ago I did an experiment with a "corn-based fork" that was supposedly compostable. I tried leaving it in water, then burying it, then researching it. Clearly "compostable" means something different to the manufacturer. Supposedly it will break down under industrial composting methods, but not by typical backyard techniques. Finally, I just used it as a semi-disposable fork hoping to see how long it would last, but we don't use such things very often, so it's still a fork.

A few years back when there was a lot of hype about 'bamboo clothing', I did some research. I've got several bamboo groves and I'd heard that bamboo breaks down quickly if it's in soil and a friend was pushing using flax fiber for local clothing production, so I was looking for a local perennial fiber plant. I have no objection to linen, (nee flax) when grown in a healthy rotation with other plants, but it is an annual. As R Ranson mentions above, retting the plant material to get the fibers you want is easy to do naturally with flax, but all the research I did could not come up with a single, simple, home-scale, natural way to turn bamboo into fiber. That made me suspicious about what went into many of these fibers, and what exactly they turn into when left to decompose. I've certainly dug up a number of things that were very resistant - I get organic coffee sacks from a local company which I use for a number of things including weed barrier. I've learned to take the time to remove the white stitching used to close the sack and any labels before use, as they definitely don't decompose. Unfortunately, I don't know what that thread is made of, but I'd guess polyester.

Supposedly Phormium tenax from New Zealand grows well in my area and it is a perennial, so I'm going to research that some more when time allows. In the meantime, I try to buy most of my clothes second hand, so that at least it's getting re-used before going to the dump.
 
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I often wonder about Rayon too!

I am also looking for other materials that close the loop!  All 100% cotton used undies (possibly too much TMI, sorry everyone!) gets tossed in the worm bin, even my husband's dyed shirts, and they all disappear within weeks. Yes, even if something is labeled 100% cotton, the thread is usually polyester, so I never compost these materials in the bin outside only because I can't be bothered with it later.

Anyone have any experience with Modal, another material they claim is plant-derived?
 
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