Cotton vs. Cotton-Poly Blend

Friday was Black Friday and Buy Nothing Day.

Saturday was Small Business Saturday.

Both days are part of our country’s big start to the holiday shopping season. I would like to encourage you to think about the material of the items you purchase (or find used) in addition to what type of business you are supporting (i.e. corporate vs. local, big vs. small). The example we’re going to talk about today is fabric, specifically cotton versus a cotton polyester blend t-shirt.

Almost everyone owns t-shirts. They are fairly cheap to purchase and sell, are a great way to reflect your personality or group, and can be a creative gift if you really think about the recipient’s preferences. If you have the opportunity and option, look at the makeup/material of the fabrics you are buying. Is it 100% cotton or another natural fiber, or is it a cotton-polyester (cotton-poly) blend, or all polyester? Also a tip if you live somewhere hot, look closely at the fabric type as “heavy weight cotton” is hot! “Heavy” cotton doesn’t breath much and it doesn’t stretch much either. If product tags or the website don’t list out the material composition, “in this day and age” it’s probably a blend of materials. If you didn’t know, polyester is a synthetic fabric meaning it’s a yarn created from plastic and doesn’t occur as a natural fiber.

The above two shirts are two of the more common brands for screenprint: Bella + Canvas and Next Level. Many organizations and Etsy sellers print on these shirts. The first one is 100% cotton and the second is a cotton-polyester blend. Both shirts are a navy color, however the cotton-polyester blend is a “heather” shade and heather seems means a cotton-polyester blend looking across several brands. Both shirts are about the same age, both washed in a high-efficiency (he) front load washing machine, with cold water, and hung up to dry. Do you see the difference? In addition to the cotton-poly shirt pilling (those little balls that develop on clothes from friction/rubbing are called “pills”), the cotton-poly shirt is probably shedding its polyester microfibers into our water system every time I wash it. They both started out soft, the cotton-polyester shirt may have even been softer at first, however now the cotton shirt is super soft and the cotton-polyester shirt is itchy from the pilling and wear.

We currently have eight cotton-poly t-shirts that we wear regularly. They all have pills like this and are a bit itchy to wear. As I said, popular brands for screen-printing. Also, navy appears to be a popular color.

I don’t encourage individuals at a household level to throw clothes and other fabric/textile items in the trash. If items cannot/will not be worn (and be honest with yourself), and they are not suitable for donation to be worn (honesty!), then they should be “recycled” with either Goodwill or a local company or provider who will recycle the clothes/textiles.

Cloth/textiles you may not realize you are throwing away may get a second life. Did you know you can also recycle:

  • Socks: holes, torn elastic, missing their partners, etc.
  • Underwear: popped elastic, undone seams, stains, torn, etc.
  • Bras: stretched out, undone seams, bad wires, straps, etc.
  • Clothes that really no one would want to wear, are stained, torn, etc.
  • Stuffed animals that can’t be repaired or washed, missing eyes, arms, tails, etc.
  • Old bedding: pillows, comforters, blankets that aren’t repairable or washable (many animal shelters and organizations reuse these)
  • Shoes that cannot be repaired by Shoe Hospital or some other entity
  • Curtains that cannot be repurposed
  • Scraps of fabric that would be too small with which to craft
  • *Reminder: If any of the above-listed items are still in useable condition, please try to find a local charity (human or animal) or secondhand/thrift store to donate to.*

It should be a an experienced industry decision if the textile/fabric can be recycled/reused as an industrial cleaning cloth, insulation or padding, shredded and re-woven into another textile product, etc. This commercial entity should be the one to determine if at some point after textiles leave our home, the cloth/textile should be landfilled. We don’t know what we don’t know, so there may be more uses for our unwanted textiles than we realize. Also while slow-going, there are small steps going forward in the textile recycling industry. Just last week Vogue shared about a new a new process called the Green Machine by H&M that recycles cotton-polyester blends. It’s not perfect, it’s in it’s infancy, it will need to get shared among competitors and it still perpetuates fast fashion and microplastics/microfibers in our water system. There is so much cotton-poly blended clothing out in the world already that for that reason alone being able to recycle it into a usable item it optimistic, but it avoids the bigger issue of not creating blends in the first place that are difficult to recycle, reuse, and create polyester/plastic fibers that get into our water system, our food, and our own bodies. This trying to fix a problem for something we didn’t need to create in the first place is a big reason why I try not to support non-food products that are made from recycled single-use products, I buy used or natural fiber. Yes the recycling process took a waste product and turned it into a new item, but did we need that original product (e.g. plastic water bottle) to be single-use to begin with?

According to a company quoted in the book Secondhand by Adam Minter, “You can’t recycle poly, and nobody wants to buy it for use as a rag.” Also, “a shirt that falls apart after a few washes can’t be transformed into a rag suitable for wiping down a freshly washed car or restaurant table. Cheap fast fashion isn’t just hurting thrift shops; it’s hastening a garment’s trip to the landfill or garbage incinerator.” Polyester doesn’t seem to absorb well as rags and it may even melt in the presence of certain chemicals. The electricians I used to work with were instructed not to wear polyester in case they caught a short so they wouldn’t catch on fire. Electricians are instructed to wear 100% cotton. Uniform-wise it was actually a little difficult to find 100% cotton uniform pieces. Slowly a few (few) companies are working on creating processes that can recycle polyester, that can separate out mixed fabric fibers like cotton from polyester, but it’s a slow process and it’s not going to address the practical issues I just listed. It would be safer and greener not to support and/or purchase difficult-to-recycle fibers like polyester in the first place.

You don’t need to go recycle or give away all the synthetic fabric items you have (though I admit I’ve done that in the past). What you can do is take care of what you have now and be more conscious going foward, both in making purchases and in requesting gifts. Let your family and friends now what is important to you and why. Remember, we don’t know what we don’t know so share the knowledge. The more your know… right?

Some great ideas on how to work with the polyester clothes you have now and steps to begin replacing them are addressed by Treehugger in What You Can Do to Reduce Microfiber Pollution.

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