Will Your Next T-Shirt be Made from Trees?


Photo: Flickr, CC
Bye-Bye Cotton, Hello Cellulose Fibers
Cotton is a great fiber to make clothes with, but unfortunately, growing it causes huge environmental problems. It's a crop that uses a lot of water, and most large cotton monocultures are doused in large quantities of pesticides. On top of that, growing cotton requires arable land, so it competes with food crops.
A dress made of rayon. Photo: Flickr, CC

But as the human population of the planet goes up and as hundreds of millions of people get out of abject poverty, they'll require more food andclothes. This leaves us with a big dilemma, unless we can find another source of fibers that doesn't suffer from the downsides associated with cotton...

A Multitude of Benefits
Ah! But how about cellulose from trees? With it we can make rayon, the modern version of which is pretty much a direct substitute for cotton, except that it is even better adapted to the climate of most developing countries than cotton because it breathes better and it's more absorbant.

And the benefits don't stop there: Cellulose from trees doesn't compete with food crops for arable land. They don't require pesticides, and if the forest is managed with the best sustainable practices, a lot of fiber can be had without damaging the local ecosystem too much.

Even better: The cellulose is just one of the components of wood. You can use the lignin to run a biomass cogeneration power plant that powers the cellulose plant (known more technically as a dissolving pulp plant) and even sell excess power back to the grid, and other sugars from the wood can be turned into all kinds of other useful things in a biorefinery. If done well, it's possible to squeeze a lot of utility out of each tree, which would be a big improvement over most of what we currently do with trees.


Cotton being harvested. Photo: Public domain

If you want to dig deeper into this, I found an interesting paper on the subject: The Cellulose Gap (pdf).

Some highlights:

Within the next two decades the world population will grow by 1.4 billion and is moving up the food chain. By 2030 we will have an additional demand for food of 43 %. On the other hand arable land is limited and the cropland area per person will shrink. This situation will result in a food crisis. Also the demand for textile fibres (natural as well as man-made) will increase by 84 %. But in the future cotton production will be stagnant because of the limited availability of arable land.

The experience shows that approximately one third of textile fibres have to be cellulosic fibres because of certain properties like absorbency and moisture management. This will result in a disproportionately high demand for man-made cellulosic fibres in the coming years.

The substitution of cotton by man-made cellulose fibres is also a contribution to the environmental protection.

Via The Cellulose Gap (PDF)
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Tags: Cotton | Pesticides