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?
A trial earlier this year tried to find out if old cotton textiles could improve the soils of the very farms that grew the crop in the first place.
Coreo, specialists in creating circular economies, partnered with the Queensland Government, Goondiwindi Cotton, Sheridan, Cotton Australia, Worn Up and the Cotton Research and Development Corporation who supported a soil scientist Dr Oliver Knox.
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.
Inspiration from those living in waste
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.
Australians part of the problem
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.”
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.
A brighter future for the cotton industry
Meantime, farmer Sam Coulton was not surprised at all by the results of the trial.
“When you pick cotton, you can’t get it all off the bush,” Mr Coulton said.
“A little bit of it has been going back into the soil for years and that has been building the soil structure.
“The microbes and water holding capacity have increased and the tilled soil is absolutely magnificent,” Mr Coulton said.
But Mr Coulton said he understood cotton’s “circular economy” would only be successful if it was economically viable, and that government funding would need to play a role.
In the meantime, he hoped to encourage others in the cotton industry to implement a circular economy system on their own farms.
“It has to happen and this is the way we can do it,” he said.