Can you compost old clothes?
For those of you who are already composting food and yard waste, have you ever considered composting old clothing or other fabric items? Maybe you have, but didn’t know if you could or how.
We all end up with some worn out clothes. You know, the ones that are just too worn for donating. My pajama tops are usually my oldest most favorite t-shirt that has become too worn to wear in public. Think Swiss cheese, but in fabric. Picture sleeves hanging on for dear life. Imagine ultimate softness. My family gets a kick out of my well-loved old shirt pajamas. Sadly, I always know, once a shirt becomes a pj top for me, the process of wearing out is accelerated, and I better start mourning my old favorite.
But back to the questions at hand: can you compost that shirt that is worn beyond use? First, you have to determine if it is made from a natural fiber. Look at the label (if the label still exists.) You can compost natural fibers such as cotton, linen, soy, hemp, modal, tencel, bamboo, wool, cashmere and silk. However, if it is blended with a non-biodegradable fiber, you will be out of luck. Synthetic non-biodegradable fibers include nylon, polyester, acrylic, modacrylic, acetate, microfiber, and spandex. If there is 5% to 10% added spandex, you may still be able to compost it. If it is in your backyard, and you can tolerate that it will take longer to break down, go for it. For composting programs collected by your city or town, I would advise that you call and ask first.
What if there is no label and you are not sure? You can do a flame test. Carefully, folks. Cut a small piece of the fabric in question. Hold it with something non-flammable like tweezers or pliers. Have a non-flammable surface to work over (like glass or ceramic). Natural fibers will burn into ash, which will crumble easily. The non-biodegradable synthetics will melt and turn hard. Be careful not to touch it right away so as not to burn yourself. Here is a link with more detail on the burn test at Craftsy (click here).
Once you have established that you can compost the fabric, you still have to prepare it for the compost bin. Garments, even 100% cotton ones, are often sewn with polyester thread. The fibers listed on the label do not include the stitching or any items sewn into or on the garment, such as ribbons, buttons, zippers, patches, and embroidery. Cut all the seams off, and remove anything sewn into or on the garment. These cannot be composted. Then cut the remaining fabric into rough squares. This step is particularly important if the compost is collected by your municipality. The compost is churned with machinery, and fabric can get wrapped in the rotating blades. I usually cut fabric into pieces about the size of my hand. If you are composting in the backyard, you might want to cut the fabric into smaller pieces. These pieces will take longer to break down than the vegetable scraps and yard waste, so you want the pieces to be small enough to blend in, if you use your compost regularly. For backyard composting, a small amount of fabric mixed in is a good place to start, and see how it goes. Don’t try too much at once.
With this in mind, you can increase your ability to follow the mantra, “reduce, reuse, recycle!” I hope this helps! Happy composting.