Fur is biodegradable
The fabric used in clothing, and for many other purposes, is made either from organic fibres or inorganic fibres. Organic fibres are naturally occurring polymers derived from plants, such as cotton, or from animals, such as leather, wool and fur. Inorganic fibres are synthetic polymers, with most being derived primarily from petroleum.
In terms of their environmental impact, one of the key differences between organic and inorganic fibres is that organic fibres biodegrade at the end of their lives, while most inorganic fibres do not.
When organic fibres are placed in the ground, microorganisms use special enzymes to attack their bonds, reducing them to monomers that can then be used as carbon and energy sources for microbial growth. This is the process by which all organic matter, after it dies, is ultimately returned to the circle of life.
However, microorganisms cannot break down many synthetic polymers, including the petroleum-based fibres widely used for clothing. While these fibres tend to disintegrate over time into ever smaller particles, their basic structure remains essentially unchanged for ever in landfills, watersheds and oceans.
Against this backdrop, a worldwide movement to reduce our use of petroleum-based plastics has been gaining ground in recent years, and one of the targets has been synthetic fur, commonly known as fake or faux fur.
Animal rights activists nonetheless promote fake fur as an alternative to real fur, and respond to environmental criticisms by claiming that (i) dangerous chemicals are used to tan (“dress”) real fur, and that (ii) the dressing process prevents even real fur from biodegrading. In truth, the chemicals used to dress fur are far more benign than its detractors claim, as we explain here. As for whether or not fur garments biodegrade, the fur trade decided to prove the obvious.
In 2016, Truth About Fur conducted the Great Fur Burial, burying fragments of real and fake fur in soil, and monitoring them over a year. The real fur fragment came from an actual garment, so it had been subjected to all the usual processes involved in dressing. After the year had passed, the results were unequivocal: while the real fur almost disappeared (a clear sign of biodegradation, not just disintegration), the fake fur was hardly changed.
And in 2018, a rigorous scientific study was conducted by Organic Waste Systems in Ghent, Belgium, commissioned by the International Fur Federation and Fur Europe. Read the full report here, or watch the overview below. Unsurprisingly, the findings, while far more detailed, only confirmed what the Truth About Fur study had found.
We probably haven’t heard the last of the claim that fur garments don’t biodegrade, and some may argue that these tests are not to be trusted as they were performed by the fur trade. So if you’re still unconvinced, find your own piece of fur and add it to your compost heap. It will disappear!
See also, in Biodegradable and Sustainable Fibers, Edited by R.S. Blackburn: “While vegetable (plant-based) and animal fibers are fully biodegradable, mineral fibers are not.” (“Biodegradable Natural Fiber Composites,” by A.N. Netravalli, Cornell University, pg. 274.) And: “Of even more concern is the ability of (synthetic) polymeric fibres to remain unchanged in the environment as polymers do not degrade very readily, which has exacerbated the already existing ecological and environmental problems of waste building; the volume in waste disposal and landfill is very high. (R.S. Blackburn, Page xv.) And: “…natural fibers like wool and cotton are broken down through biotic process. Microorganisms have evolved enzymes that attack key bonds in these natural polymers, thereby releasing monomers that can be used as carbon and energy sources for microbial growth. In contrast, microorganisms lack enzymes to break down many synthetic fibers, thus these materials persist and accumulate in the environment. “Microbial Processes in the Degradation of Fibers”, P.M. Fedorak, University of Alberta, pg.1.