Clothes made from plant-based and animal-based fibers will eventually break down and return to the earth, while clothes made from synthetic fibers, like polyester, will slosh around in our landfills and oceans long after we're bones.
Here's your quick refresher on fiber types:
I wanted to demonstrate biodegradability, so I threw a square of this summer's 100% cotton gauze in my worm composting bin. The conditions are perfect to speed up the biodegrading process. Here is the fabric after just two weeks vs. a swatch of the exact same fabric that has been lying around my studio! Nice! Our clothes become dirt which becomes more clothes. It's the circle of life, right?
Oof. Sorry buds. An estimated 2/3 of clothing is derived from petroleum. And it doesn't biodegrade.
Stay with me now, I promise this will circle back.
Folks in Greece are not buried forever. Due to lack of space, burial plots are leased for 3 to 10 years. Then the family gathers to disinter the bones, clean them and have them blessed by a priest, then relocate the bones to an ossuary.
A friend told me all of this before traveling to attend the disinterment of her grandmother. I like the idea of a family gathering to honor a loved one years after their death. I like the idea of being buried without embalming and without a hermetically sealed coffin, with the goal of returning to the earth. Dust to dust, as they say.
As it was explained to me, the gravedigger starts at the head of the grave and works carefully towards the feet. Not all bodies decompose at the same rate, as you may guess. Some bones, especially small ones, might already be gone. Do you know, dear reader, how they know for sure they've reached the feet? The gravedigger, at last, reaches the socks. Our dearly beloved Greeks are buried wearing polyester socks because polyester doesn't biodegrade!
NOW I'd like to issue a couple caveats. I was not able to independently verify that bodies in Greece are buried with polyester socks. An internet search only turned up articles about how the Greek Orthodox Church is super against disinterment and bereaved families agonize that they cannot pay for a grave in perpetuity. I was unable to find specifics about the burial process. Nor could I find a photo of a skeleton wearing only socks. (Which would really have driven my point home but would have been too disrespectful in retrospect!)
Instead, I threw a polyester sock into my worm bin along with my cotton gauze. After two weeks the worms had managed to break down cardboard, entire rinds of kabocha squash, fibrous celery stalks, but barely managed to stain the sock! Here it is next to its unharmed mate.
Petroleum-based fibers take 20-200 years to decompose, and its broken-down compounds are toxic to the environment and to us living things. In the US alone we throw out 13 million pounds of clothing per year. That's 80 pounds per person! And 2/3 of that is made of oil! It fairly boggles the mind. But we'll talk about overconsumption in another love letter from me to you.
Before I sign off I want to clear something up really quick. I've mentioned that plant-based fibers are biodegradeable and, judging by at least one woman's horrified look, my potential customer thought I meant that these garments would disintegrate if you wore them in the rain. Of course this is not at all what I mean. If you put a wooden chair in your attic it would still be there in a hundred years. But if you chipped it up and mulched your garden with it, that chair would be entirely gone by the end of the summer! Same with fabric. A cotton dress will last a lifetime if cared for properly. If you threw that same cotton dress in my worm bin... it will last approximately two weeks.