So how do you make compostable clothes?
Finding clothes that are appropriate for the compost can be tricky; that said, composting clothes is totally possible. It’s also a viable solution to the enormous amount of clothing waste our planet faces.
Only clothing that is made from 100% natural fibers can be composted. You’ll have to read the tag on your garment to learn what it is made of.
We got you! Start by learning how to read clothing labels then look for the following sustainable fabrics that can be composted:
Fabric blends of natural and synthetic fibers are more of a judgment call, depending on the mix and how much synthetic fiber is in the blend. Some reports say a maximum of 1% synthetic fabric is appropriate for composting, while others say it can be 5% or even up to 9%.
If you’re including something with a bit more synthetic material in the blend, keep in mind that this compost might not be suitable for a vegetable garden.
Material isn’t the only thing you need to keep in mind if you’re looking to compost clothing.
Any embellishments like buttons, zippers, snaps, or other metal components won’t be biodegradable (unless they’re specified as made of organic material, like Corozo nut buttons) and will have to be removed.
Don’t forget about the thread!
Oftentimes, brands will use polyester thread (because it’s cheaper and stronger) in that 100% cotton t-shirt. For that reason, you’ll often see garment labels stating things like 100% cotton “exclusive of trims”.
That still doesn’t tell us much, so the safest bet is to rip out threads or cut away thread-intensive sections if you’re short on time.
Synthetic or Natural Dyes
Dyes are another common concern for composting clothing, given that many dyes used today are synthetic, toxic, and potentially carcinogenic.
Can you compost cotton dyed with these?
Technically yes. Synthetic dyes won’t stop your organic cotton fabric from decomposing, but the chemicals will likely leak out and could contaminate your soil.
And what’s tricky here is that we don’t really know if natural fibers were colored using natural dyes. While a label tells us the fabric, the dye ingredients are rarely listed. For that reason, there’s no way to confirm if clothing has a highly toxic dye involved.
This is why it’s best to compost clothing that is undyed or from eco-friendly clothing brands that specify if they use plant-based dyes, Azo-free non-toxic dyes, or other kinds of sustainable dyes.
Fabric finishes are another consideration when it comes to looking to compost clothes.
Fashion brands will coat finished items in chemical finishes to improve the look or performance of the garment. These do things like make the textile stain-, crease-, or water-resistant, anti-microbial, or anti-static.
Sometimes they even include fluorocarbons (PFAS), which are very toxic “forever chemicals.”
As with synthetic dyes, these chemical finishes can have a negative impact on your backyard compost, making it unfit for gardening.
They also sometimes delay the material’s ability to biodegrade.
As with clothing dyes, fabric finishes aren’t typically mentioned on clothing labels. In these cases, it’s best to reach out to brands directly if you think you can compost something, but aren’t sure.
Garment Tags & Labels
Are clothing tags compostable?
Unless it is specified on the tag itself, no. It’s best to leave clothing tags out.
Labels are durable and soft cloth fabric materials, usually made of plastic materials like satin, nylon, taffeta, polyester, tape, or ribbon.
Look for cotton fabric tags or tags printed directly on the fabric.
A final consideration are stains. You don’t want to compost anything that has stains from the “what not to compost” list you can’t wash out, like paint or engine oil.
As a rule of (green)thumb, when in doubt, leave it out.
You don’t want to spoil your whole compost batch! (Or go digging through the nasty muck looking for bits of plastic.)