Has your wardrobe had a spring clean? There are some clothes I've pulled from my wardrobe after years of good service that are simply not suitable for donation because they are stained, teared, hole-y or misshapen. What to do? This time last year, we came up with 6 eco ways to get rid of your unwanted clothes. This article merely touched on composting as an option, so we thought we'd dig a bit deeper (get it? sorry) into composting your old clothes.
Photo by Priscilla Du Perez
Step 1: Check the label
Clothes made from synthetic fibres such as acrylic, polyester, nylon, elastane or microfibre fleeces should not be added to the compost heap. These fibres will not break down and instead they'll just clog up your compost. Another reason to buy natural fibres.
Clothing made from natural fibres such as pure wool, cotton, cashmere, bamboo, silk, linen, hemp and tencel are biodegradable and will compost! Leather and cork will also compost but will take a much longer time to decompose. Take note: many clothes that claim to be made from 100% natural fibres may contain polyester thread for their sewing thread. Polyester thread will not break down so you may end up with some string left in your compost heap. Some people are okay with composting clothing which contains a percentage of synthetic materials, some are not. You be the judge of what goes into your compost heap.
Step 2: Remove non-biodegradable materials
Remove any non-biodegradable materials like plastic buttons and tags and elastic. Remove metal components like zips and press studs which technically are made from natural materials, but will take a very long time to break down. Tammy Logan from Gippsland Unwrapped (who is a wealth of information and certainly knows her way around a compost bin), gave me the idea of collection and reusing these components for sewing projects or donating them to craft groups or op-shops.
Photo by Annie Spratt
Step 3: Last check
Do not compost any clothes that are stained with things like paint and engine oil. If you're using compost for growing food, you may also want to leave out natural fibres that have heavy prints, have been heavily dyed or printed with PVC inks and plastics (look out for designs that sit on the fabric rather than woven into or soaked into the fabric). You may also want to leave out clothes that have been extensively dry cleaned to avoid residual chemical contamination.
Step 4: To shred or not to shred
By shredding your clothes, they'll be able to decompose faster. The smaller the better! The only downside: polyester stitching. If you're worried about polyester stitching getting in your compost, then it may be worth skipping this step, although it will take longer for the garment to compost. By leaving the thread in tact, when the garment breaks down you're left with whole pieces of polyester thread that you can remove rather easily rather than tiny, chopped up bits which are much harder to extract.
Step 5: Let it happen
Your composting system and health of the soil will determine how fast your clothes will decompose. You can also choose to bury your old garments in a place where they won't be disturbed for a while. Some fibres like silk and linen may take between a couple of week and a year to decompose whereas wool and bamboo may take up to five years.
Add plenty of wetter items like vegetable peelings and garden cuttings alongside clothes to make sure they break down and to keep your compost heap healthy. Try not to overwhelm your compost heap with too many clothes at once, with no more than 25% of your heap being old clothes.
Photo by Neslihan Gunaydin
One last thing:
Before choosing to compost old clothes, there are so many other things you can do with them: gift them, sell them, donate them or repurpose them (see our previous blog post here). What I'm trying to say is that composting is a great option, but it's not the only way to keep old clothes out of landfill.
These blogs and websites really helped me out with this article: