Could cotton be recycled back to the farm?

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What if unwanted cotton clothing could be returned to cotton farms instead of clogging up landfill in Australia and overseas, where it is an environmental catastrophe?


Cotton Australia launched a trial earlier this year to find out if old cotton textiles could improve the soils of the very farms that grew the crop in the first place.

As part of the trial, farmer Sam Coulton and his grandson Harry spread two tonnes of shredded cotton on a paddock on their farm at Goondiwindi, in southern Queensland.

“We put it in a fertiliser spreader and then just spread it back on the land and it goes back into the soil,” he said.

It was a trip to Asia that inspired Mr Coulton to seek a solution to the problem of textile waste.

“Coming from a background of farming, you use everything or reuse everything. It’s always been against my grain to just throw something in the rubbish bin,”he said.

Textile waste is a challenge for both developing and developed countries and Oliver Knox, a Senior Lecturer of Cotton at the University of New England, said Australians were a massive part of the problem.

Dr Knox said discarded clothing was as much of a problem for agriculture as climate change.

“If you’re putting textile waste to landfill, you’re creating methane, you’re creating carbon dioxide. You’re creating greenhouse gases from your disposal of unwanted clothing.”

Hands hold shredded cotton textile waste.
Cotton sheets, clothing, and hospital garments have been shredded up to reduce textile waste.(ABC Rural: Lucy Cooper)

Bigger than just some soil samples

To track the change in the paddock from the trial, soil samples were sent to labs at the University of New England and Dr Knox said the results were unsurprising.

“There is no real change in the soil carbon, there’s no real change in most of the nutrition.”

But the absence of dramatic change was encouraging, he said.

“We’re hopefully just diverting a waste stream and trying to capitalise on it.

“If this program was to continue long term, we could start to see benefits in the future,” Dr Knox said.

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