Cotton farmers undergo textile waste trial

Cotton Australia
Monday, 27 March, 2023

Cotton farmers undergo textile waste trial

Cotton farmers in New South Wales and Queensland have launched phase 2 trials to identify a scalable, long-term solution to the issue of textile waste in landfill.

Goondiwindi’s Sam Coulton, who hosted the phase 1 trial, is being joined by Gunnedah’s Scott Morgan, a leading cotton farmer in sustainability. Morgan said his decision to take part in the trial was easy given his early adoption of a large-scale solar generation project and numerous water conservation projects.

“I’m excited about returning 100% cotton back to farms because I think it’s the right thing to do for the environment by helping close the circularity gap. My strong hope is that the cotton waste can improve soil health and organisms — thereby improving crop yields,” Morgan said.

Following flooding events in late December, Morgan was able to distribute around 2.4 tonnes of the shredded material onto an already planted cotton field, thanks to Thread Together, a charitable organisation that adopts an ethical response to the issue of fashion excess. The material was watered into the soil and the resulting crop is looking good, standing at about 50 cm and scheduled for harvest in late May.

Coulton was also impacted by extreme weather and logistics issues, managing to apply 600 kg of cotton waste onto one plot on his farm. Though this was less than hoped for, it was still significant in his second year of circularity trials. Since application, Sam has furrow cultivated and irrigated and the material has broken down significantly.

“The first phase was positive, but with COVID and poor weather we were limited in what we could achieve. I am hopeful this phase will lead to a major transformation in cotton circularity,” Coulton said.

Soil scientist Oliver Knox, who is overseeing the trials, has found that cotton textile waste has no adverse impact to soil health or cotton yields.

Knox said new test results from Phase 1 were very encouraging.

“We found that organic carbon in the top 10 cm of soil from phase 1 has increased to 1.08% from .77% and that is a significant jump. Sulfur has also increased from 4.5 mg per kg to 7.4 mg per kg and that indicates improved soil fertility and health,” he said.

For the 2022/23 trial, program partners Cotton Australia, Goondiwindi Cotton, the Cotton Research and Development Corporation (CRDC) and Sheridan have been joined by Thread Together.

According to Thread Together CEO Anthony Chesler, the company is dealing with excess stock rather than cotton waste.

“Thread Together never declines a donation of excess clothing and sometimes this creates more supply than demand. As part of this new challenge, we were pleased to work with Worn Up to ensure 100% cotton garments were shredded and dispatched to Gunnedah,” Chesler said.

Tanya Deans, President Hanes Australasia, said progress towards circularity is an important part of sustainability, and Sheridan, together with the wider Hanes businesses, is committed to the cause.

“I’d also like to thank the CRDC and Thread Together for supporting this mission with their generous contribution as well. This is just the beginning of innovative solutions on our shores and we are proud to be a part of it,” Deans said.

CRDC provided funding for Knox to continue his research and development and has committed almost $2m in funds over the next three years for a suite of projects to complement the initial work and increase understanding of the topic.

“This program could be a game changer, but we need scientific rigour to fully appreciate the soil science and the long-term impact of returning cotton textiles to the farm: carbon footprint, impact on soil health, waterways, benefits to farmers, brands and other stakeholders,” said CRDC Executive Director Ian Taylor.

One of the projects currently underway is a three-year investment with the University of Newcastle to further investigate the effects of dyes and finishes from waste material on soil health, especially on the diversity, growth and functioning of soil microbes, which are critical for the health and resilience of soils across the landscape. The project will also look at ways to pelletise cotton textiles through biological breakdown of the waste material to enable spreading on fields using existing farm machinery.

Brooke Summers from Cotton Australia is leading the Goondiwindi and Gunnedah circularity project.

She said the phase 1 results show it’s possible to find a solution and help close the loop on circularity. Phase 2 should help bring this solution a step closer, but only with the committed involvement of governments, industry groups, brands and potential investors.

Phase 2 will be monitored closely by Dr Knox at both locations with all results being scientifically assessed before a full report is produced to guide future circularity developments.

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