The zero waste community seems to have a real love hate relationship with cotton. Some members of the community love cotton on the grounds that it is a better alternative to plastic when used to make things like shopping and produce bags. Other members hate cotton for the extreme amount of water the plant requires and low recycling rates. Then there are those of us who are not sure where we lie. The goal of this article is to give a little context to both sides and present some alternatives that merge the best of both worlds.
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Why love Cotton?
Cotton does have many positives. One major positive is that the entire cotton plant is used. The buds (actual cotton) are used by the textile industry, the seeds are used in animal feed and to produce cotton seed oil and the stalk of the plants are tilled back into the ground after harvest. There are many cotton products that have been made to act as a substitute for plastic products. Including bags, saran wrap and napkins. These alternatives do offer more lifetime uses than there plastic and paper alternatives because of there increased durability. Take for example a cotton shopping bag. Over the course of a lifetime it will replace 22,000 plastic bags.
Why hate Cotton?
While there are many positives to cotton there are some very big negative consequences. The first negative being water usage. It takes 20,000 liters of water to produce only 2.2 lbs of cotton. 2.2 lbs is only enough cotton to make 1 shirt and 1 pair of jeans. Thinking about the fact that the average American owns 7 pair of jeans you begin to realize how unsustainable growing cotton is. In fact in a 2015 U.N. report predicted that the world is on track to face a 40% water shortage in the next 15 years (2030). Aside from water usage a large strike against cotton is that most people don't recycle textiles. Every year the average American throws away 65 lbs of textiles. 13.1 million tons (26,000,000,000 lbs) of textiles is trashed each year. Only 15% of all the resources used to produce cotton are recovered.
While both sides of the argument do have merit it is clear that contain is not a panacea for all of our environmental problems and that a more sustainable textile is needed. So I want to kick start our research by providing 3 textiles that have the potential to replace cotton.
To grow a ton of hemp requires half the land and 4x less water than to grow a ton of cotton. The importing and selling of hemp textiles is legal in both Canada and the usa.
Requires a lot less space and can grow in some of the best and worse soil. Being a member of the grass family bamboo grows extremely fast and can grow with minimal water.
Is a man made fabric made from the wood pulp and is the most similar on this list to cotton. It can absorb 50% more liquid than cotton but is slightly more expensive.