Material gain: Farmers fashion big carbon savings from old threads

Cotton farmers are returning shredded textile waste to farms, preventing tonnes of material from ending in landfill while offering a recyclable soil improvement solution for the future.

Jul 28, 2022, updated Jul 28, 2022
Cotton farmer Sam Coulton says the experiment using recycled cotton clothing is bearing fruit. (Image: Cotton Australia).

Cotton farmer Sam Coulton says the experiment using recycled cotton clothing is bearing fruit. (Image: Cotton Australia).

The unique composting trial is considered a world-first by researchers who say the 12-month project near Goondiwindi in southern Queensland has seen more than two tonnes of carbon broken down in the soil rather than released as uncontrolled emissions.

Once in the soil, the material also maintained stable carbon levels while stimulating the activity of soil bugs, a natural sign that soils are brimming with nutrients and thriving.

Cotton grower Sam Coulton said the paddocks easily “swallowed up” the shredded cotton material, giving him confidence that the composting method had practical long-term potential.

“We spread the cotton textile waste a few months before cotton planting in June 2021 and by January and the middle of the season the cotton waste had all but disappeared, even at the rate of 50 tonnes to the hectare,” he said.

“I wouldn’t expect to see improvements in soil health or yield for at least five years as the benefits need time to accumulate, but I was very encouraged that there was no detrimental impact on our soils.

“In the past we’ve spread cotton gin trash on other parts of the farm and have seen dramatic improvements in the moisture holding capacity on these fields so would expect the same using shredded cotton waste.”

Soil scientist Dr Oliver Knox said the project team was confident that with a solid business plan and more research, returning shredded cotton products to cotton fields could soon offer benefits to soil health, and a scalable solution to the massive global problem of textile waste.

“There also appeared to be no adverse effect from dyes and finishes although more testing is needed on a wider range of chemicals to be absolutely sure of that,” Knox said.

Cotton Australia’s Brooke Summers said there was keen interest in further collaboration from industry groups, government, farmers, brands and potential investors.

“There’s certainly a huge amount of interest in this idea and the trial results and while we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, we are hopeful that over time this will evolve to deliver a scalable solution for cotton textile waste here in Australia,” Summers said.

The cotton trash spread on Coulton’s farm began life in Sydney as “end-of-life” textiles from Sheridan – one of the project partners – and State Emergency Service coveralls.

Coulton is so thrilled with the opportunity, he has committed to a repeat trial next season while he considers developing a business case, purchasing a shredder and potentially providing a new model for employment in regional cotton communities.

The trial will expand to a second farm in Gunnedah NSW in the next phase over summer.

Sheridan, together with US parent company Hanes Australasia, has committed to provide additional offcuts for the trial in 2022-23.

“We couldn’t be more elated about the success of the trial in Goondiwindi,” Hanes Australasia president Tanya Deans said.

“To think that we might have a scalable solution for textile waste on our shores is even more exciting.

“Hanes looks forward to finding ways to support the next phase of the trials and we hope that this paves the way for more innovative solutions to textile waste in our country.”


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