“Biodegradable” – more than just a buzzword

The term “biodegradable” has long since become an integral part of the textile industry. Nevertheless, there is much more to it than just a fashionable term. At a time when sustainability is a key issue for companies, the textile industry faces the challenge of making its production processes and materials more environmentally friendly and, ideally, recyclable.

Sustainable labels and ingredients play a decisive role as visible trademarks. They not only provide information about the product, but also make a statement about the brand and its attitude to sustainability. Against this backdrop, the topic of “biodegradable materials” is becoming increasingly important. But what does this term actually mean? This blog post looks at the definition, the important guidelines and highlights the contribution that biodegradable materials can make to promoting more sustainable production methods.

What characterizes biodegradable materials?

Biodegradable materials in the fashion and textile industry are materials that can decompose under the influence of microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi or enzymes. This process causes them to decompose completely into natural components (CO2, water, biomass) at the end of their life cycle. In contrast to conventional, non-degradable materials, they therefore offer a more environmentally friendly alternative. The biodegradation process usually takes place in anaerobic environments, such as landfills or composting plants, where microorganisms break down the material into smaller molecules that can be used as nutrients or further degraded by other organisms.

The advantage of these properties of certain materials (e.g. cotton, linen, hemp, wool and certain types of synthetic fibers) over non-degradable materials for the textile industry is obvious. By using biodegradable fabrics, textile companies can reduce their ecological footprint and help to reduce waste. By using these materials, they can also offer their customers a more environmentally friendly alternative that reflects the growing demand for sustainable products in society.

So is “biodegradable” and “compostable” the same thing?

Not quite! A key distinguishing feature here is the time factor. A compostable material will break down in less than three months, whereas a biodegradable material will take around six months or longer to decompose to 90% of its mass. In principle, therefore, every organic substance is “biodegradable” – but the time required for degradation varies. In the case of plastic, for example, this process can take up to 400 years.

All materials that are compostable are therefore also biodegradable – but not vice versa! This is because compostability is a special type of biodegradation. In the process, a compostable plastic decomposes into compost by microbes. In contrast, decomposition by microorganisms or enzymes (i.e. “biodegradation”), for example, only leaves behind water, carbon dioxide and biomass. Biodegradation processes can also be more diverse, while compostable materials must meet certain standards in terms of their degradation rate, residue quality, environmental conditions such as temperature and humidity, and the availability of microorganisms in order to be considered as such.

Put to the test: standards and certifications for biodegradable substances

International standards and certifications are used to regulate biodegradable substances. The most important international standards include EN 13432 and ASTM D6400. These standards stipulate that biodegradable plastics must be broken down under industrial conditions within a certain period of time, normally within around 180 days. During the decomposition process, no harmful residues must be left behind and the material must be converted into carbon dioxide, water and biomass.

In addition to EN 13432 and ASTM D6400, there are other important standards and test methods such as ISO 14855, the European standard EN 14995 and the international standard ISO 17088. EN 14995 describes the methods for determining the biodegradability of materials under anaerobic conditions, while ISO 17088 specifies the requirements for labeling and testing the biodegradability of materials. These standards provide detailed guidance on how to conduct tests and interpret the results to ensure that biodegradable plastics are correctly labeled and evaluated.

As the standards and norms mentioned are not specifically tailored to the requirements of the textile industry, there are additional industry-specific guidelines and test methods developed by textile associations, research institutes or other specialist organizations. These industry-specific standards include aspects such as biodegradability, color fastness, fiber strength and environmentally friendly production techniques. They are regularly revised and adapted to new developments to ensure that the textile industry uses sustainable and high-quality biodegradable materials.

A green dilemma: the advantages and disadvantages of biodegradable materials compared to alternative sustainable solutions

Biodegradable materials are increasingly seen as a promising, sustainable option in the textile industry. Their use offers a number of benefits, including a reduced environmental impact and the promotion of a circular economy. By biodegrading at the end of their life cycle, these materials can help to reduce waste and conserve resources. Another advantage is their flexibility and versatility. They can be used for a variety of applications in the textile industry, from clothing and packaging to home textiles – and labels – and thus offer a wide range of possible uses.

Despite their advantages, the extended use of such materials often comes up against limits. One of the main problems is the limited availability of biodegradable raw materials and the technical challenges of producing these materials on a large scale. In addition, some biodegradable plastics may not degrade effectively in all environments or applications, which can lead to disposal issues.

Compared to other sustainable materials such as recycled polyester or vegan alternatives, biodegradable materials have both advantages and disadvantages. While recycled polyester, for example, already uses established recycling infrastructures, biodegradable plastics offer the possibility of being broken down into natural components at the end of their life cycle, which can be a better disposal option. Although vegan alternatives, such as materials made from plant-based or synthetic fibres, lack animal components, they can still have a negative impact on the environment due to the use of pesticides or chemical fertilizers.

Going green – an outlook

Biodegradable materials in the textile industry not only offer a more sustainable alternative to conventional materials, but also open up new horizons for innovation and progress. Thanks to their versatility and environmental friendliness, they offer enormous potential for shaping a sustainable future. From the development of innovative textile products to the opening up of new markets, biodegradable materials offer numerous opportunities for the industry. The integration of these materials into products can not only help to reduce the environmental impact, but also strengthen the competitiveness and image of companies. It is time to reconcile sustainability and innovation in order to shape a better – and above all: greener – future together.

Commitment to sustainability and innovation in the textile industry is crucial, to tackle the challenges of climate change and resource scarcity. As a manufacturer and supplier of labels for the textile industry, we are at your disposal to support you in integrating biodegradable materials into your products.