Bras fit for burying: Australia to set a world-first standard for composting textiles

Australia has a 227,000 tonne a year fashion waste problem, but thanks to a lingerie designer’s campaign, some of it could soon rot productively

Australians could be the first people in the world to confidently compost their worn out clothing, thanks to a campaign led by a lingerie entrepreneur.

For the last 18 months, Stephanie Devine of the Very Good Bra has worked with sustainability experts, academics and industry to create a proposal for Standards Australia: a technical specification for compostable textiles.

On 21 March, after a period of public consultation, the proposal was accepted by Standards Australia’s production management group.

Adam Stingemore, from Standards Australia, said: “While there are global standards for compostability, we are not aware of any specifically for compostable textiles, so we believe this to be a world first.”

Covering everything from the size of allen keys to the installation of electrical wiring to food safety to country currency codes, standards are the collectively accepted rules, specifications and procedures that ensure things work the way they are supposed to. They can be set at a state, national or international level.

Brooke Summers, of Cotton Australia, who supported Devine’s campaign said a textile composting standard “means a lot to us”.

“The scalability of it is just phenomenal,” Summers said. Cotton Australia, the peak body representing Australian cotton farmers, was separately working on projects that repurpose cotton clothing in agriculture. Australians send nearly 227,000 tonnes of textiles to landfill every year, but Summers said on a farm: “Two-and-a-half tonnes [of cotton waste] doesn’t go far at all.”

Devine’s own attempts to make compostable bras and underwear led her to drive the proposal. Her products met the basic parameters for textile compostability: made from 100% natural fibres, including the threads and labels; with certified organic dyes; elastic made from natural tree rubber and easily removable metal clasps.

But when Devine tried to take the garments to commercial composters, they refused to accept them. There was no official standard to prove the clothes would compost safely.

Without an accepted standard, putting garments into compost could be hazardous, said Oliver Knox, an associate professor in soil systems from the University of New England, who worked on the proposal. “We don’t really want poly-cotton or polyester labels or threads in the compost,” he said. “Even if they do work their way through the system, they’ll end up basically creating contaminants, micro-plastics and the like.”

Certain dyes and waterproof or flame-retardant coatings can also release toxins into the soil, he said.

Summers said a standard is essential because “if we’re going to do this at scale, we need some guard rails”.

Standards Australia will now enter a development phase, to determine the criteria clothing will have to meet so that mulch quality is not affected.

Cotton Australia will be involved in this process, Summers said.

Devine said the only way a compostable clothes stream will succeed is if brands actively participate. They must design products that can qualify for the standard, then set up take-back schemes to create pathways from customer to composter.

Courtney Holm, of fashion brand A.BCH, said many garments can be “pretty easily” designed for compostability.

Brands will have to consider more than just using natural fibres, Holm said. “Certain trims and finishes are nearly impossible to swap out, like zippers that affix metals with plastic zipper tapes, that are then stitched into clothing.” But these can be avoided “by changing the closure design i.e. corozo buttons or bio-elastics”.

Knox said the standard was “part of the dream” of circularity. When all avenues for recycling and reuse have been exhausted, people can have the confidence to safely compost clothing in their own back yards.

“We don’t need any major technology breakthroughs to compost textiles,” Holm said. “We don’t need heaps of investment or infrastructure especially given the rise of [organic waste bins] across city councils.”

Cotton Australia is already working on trials that use shredded cotton clothing as a compost. “It’s so encouraging to see our industry starting to invest in this,” Summers said.

Holm described composting as a low-barrier to entry pathway into circular design. “While composting is lower priority to say re-using, repair and remanufacture from a waste hierarchy perspective – it is kind of the most important consideration, given … how it affects the planet,” she said.

Stingemore said the initiative is part of Standards Australia’s work to advance the circular economy, in Australia and internationally.

After the public consultation period, Standards Australia told Devine the project had received the most support they had ever seen.

“We look forward to progressing this proposal,” Stingemore said. “And encourage others to submit proposals for innovative standards and documents that benefit Australian consumers, business and society.”


Lucianne Tonti and Alyx Gorman

The GuardianTramp

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