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Biodegradation: What's happening in the soil?

Let's talk about how matter can transform from one object into another!

biodegradation of clothing

In a nutshell, biodegradation is a process where tiny organisms like bacteria and fungi break down things like plants, animals, and waste into simpler parts. These organisms use the materials for energy and nutrients, turning them into things like water, carbon dioxide, and biomass. This process helps recycle and renew organic matter by decomposing dead things and waste. However, not everything can biodegrade easily, like some types of plastics. The speed and extent of biodegradation depend on factors like the material's composition and the environment.

Let's take a look at how biodegradation works for materials made from plants...

Biodegradation case study: Linen fabric 🌿😮

linen fabric biodegrading

Linen is made from the flax plant, so it is considered to be dead plant material.

What happens in the soil when linen fabric is buried underground?

Linen biodegradation process explained

The process of linen biodegradation:

Living in the soil

Living organisms like worms, bacteria, and fungi may be living in the soil nearby!

Consumption and digestion

These micro-organisms eat the linen fabric, digest it, and what they don't use for energy is released as water, CO2, and biomass called "humus" which will nourish new life that grows out of the dirt!

How long does biodegradation take? That depends on...

Composition To be biodegradable, the material has to be digestible by the microorganisms. This includes organic matter like animal and plant tissues and therefore extends to plant-based fabrics like linen. Most nylon and polyester fibers used in clothing are made from petroleum and are therefore not biodegradable.

Size The more surface area that is available for the micro-organisms to digest, the quicker the biodegradation process will be. When the fabric is cut in smaller pieces, and laid flat, it will likely biodegrade quicker.

The environment of the soil:

Quantity & diversity of micro-organisms Different microbes have different metabolic capabilities, and some microbes digest certain materials better than others. The more suitable microbes present, the faster the biodegradation! Microbe populations are impacted by temperature, humidity, pH, and oxygen levels...

Temperature The rate of biodegradation typically increases as temperature increases, up to ~120°F. The microbes have increased enzyme activity.

Humidity Biodegradation rates usually increase as moisture increases.

pH A pH range of 6.5 to 7.5 is best for optimal growth of bacteria.

Oxygen levels Most microorganisms rely on oxygen to survive. The higher the oxygen levels in the soil, the quicker the biodegradation.


linen fabric buried underground

I hope this has helped you better understand the process of linen biodegradation!

Living organisms like worms, bacteria, and fungi in the soil consume and digest the linen fabric, releasing water, CO2, and biomass that nourish new life. The time it takes for biodegradation depends on factors such as the composition of the material, the size of the fabric pieces, and environmental conditions like temperature, humidity, pH, and oxygen levels. We would expect that higher temperatures, increased moisture, optimal pH, and higher oxygen levels generally accelerate the biodegradation process!


Infographic PDF print and download:

You can get this infographic as a pdf at the link below (Letter & Legal sizes, and printer-friendly versions)

Legal size (1)
Download PDF • 2.60MB
Legal size, Printer-Friendly (1)
Download PDF • 1.35MB
Letter - Simplified
Download PDF • 2.52MB
Letter - Simplified - Printer friendly
Download PDF • 1.26MB


Want to experiment with linen biodegradation in your own backyard?

Join us for a fun summer experiment called "Shirt-to-Dirt"! From June-August 2023, I'm sending linen fabric to participants all across the US to test how long it takes linen to biodegrade in their own backyards. Learn more here!

shirt to dirt citizen science experiment


Charlie Darwin Textiles is a handmade clothing brand specializing in plant-dyed linen fabrics and custom-sizing.

white linen dress button up

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