cotton buds on black background.

Cotton Wool Recycling and Disposal

Cotton wool is widely used in both the home and commercial world for many types of applications. Available as pads, balls, or on the end of cotton buds and with high absorbency, it’s mainly used to clean the skin, apply liquids, bathe wounds, and plug test tubes in laboratories.

Outside of the home places like hospitals, care homes, and laboratories can use cotton wool regularly and therefore create plenty of associated waste. It’s important you know what to do with used cotton wool for safe and green disposal. Discover everything you need to know about disposing of and recycling cotton wool.

Cotton wool recycling

  • Who invented cotton wool?

    Cotton wool was first imported to the UK in the 16th century when it was made from a combination of yarn or linen. By 1750, the production of cotton cloths was taking place alongside the import of raw cotton.

    A US-born inventor named Eli Whitney patented the cotton gin in 1794. This was a machine that changed the way cotton was produced by removing the cotton seeds from cotton fibre. This significantly sped up the production of cotton. In 1880 Dr Joseph Sampson Gamgee invented Gamgee Tissue – a cotton wool and gauze surgical dressing.

  • What is cotton wool made from?

    Cotton wool is made up of silky fibres that are taken in their raw condition from cotton plants. The fibres are composed of approximately:

    • 87 to 90% cellulose
    • 4 to 6% natural impurities
    • 5 to 8% water

    Impurities such as any seeds from the cotton plant are extracted, first. Then the cotton is bleached using sodium hypochlorite or hydrogen peroxide. Finally, the cotton is sterilised before it’s ready for use as cotton wool.

  • Can you recycle cotton wool?

    No, unfortunately cotton wool cannot be recycled. There are a few reasons for this – mainly because once it’s used it may be contaminated with whatever other materials or elements it absorbs. Technically clean and dry cotton wool made from 100% cotton is biodegradable, but it’s rare that you need to get rid of fresh cotton wool.

  • How do you dispose of cotton wool?

    You should place any used cotton wool in your rubbish bin or general waste bin to dispose of it. Sadly, cotton wool is not recyclable so should not go in any other bin. You also can’t really clean and reuse it, so disposing with other non-recyclable waste is the safest option.

    Most cotton wool isn’t compostable as while it’s a natural fibre, cotton wool becomes contaminated quickly when used. This could be with the likes of facial toner, nail polish remover, or mascara. Cotton wool should not be flushed down the toilet as it may expand when put in water, which can cause blockages.

  • What happens after cotton wool is sent for disposal?

    When cotton wool is collected alongside general waste, it will either end up in landfill or be incinerated. In some cases, it can be processed and used as a fertiliser or improver.

  • What are some eco-friendly alternatives to cotton wool?

    There are various other materials you can use as an alternative to cotton wool that are more sustainable. These include:

    • Recycled polyester, cotton, or wool
    • Organic cotton
    • Hemp products
    • Responsible wool
    • Silk
  • What are the problems with cotton wool waste?

    Cotton wool has become a well-used household staple for many of us. The cotton is often picked, packaged, and transported from far away to the UK – so lots of energy and time goes into producing it. And as cotton wool cannot be recycled it’s not the most sustainable material to use.

    Plus, it takes approximately 20,000 litres of water to create 1kg of cotton. This is equivalent to a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, or almost six months of water for the regular person. Cotton farming is also the reason we have 24% of insecticides worldwide.

    Cotton wool cleansing pads often used in makeup routines are incredibly versatile. However, they’re not disposable, making them wasteful and harmful to the environment.

  • What are some facts about cotton wool?

    A few key facts about cotton and cotton wool are that:

    • China and India are the largest producers of cotton – contributing to almost half of the world’s production.
    • Cotton seeds have dated back to around 450 BC.
    • There’s no waste as all the cotton plant is used. Seeds can create animal feed and cottonseed oil, while the stalks are tilled back into the soil.
    • Cotton seeds are planted in the spring and harvested in autumn.
    • Cotton fibre is made up of a natural polymer called cellulose. The human body cannot digest cellulose, whereas horses and cattle can.

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