Brought to you by Newscorp Australia

CSIRO working on green super cotton that could mean the end to polluting plastic fabrics

AAP and Donna Coutts, August 16, 2018 7:00PM Kids News

Print Article

Ripe cotton ready for harvesting. Picture: Getty Images media_cameraRipe cotton ready for harvesting. Picture: Getty Images

science

Reading level: orange

Australian scientists are working on creating a natural, crumple-free, breathable and waterproof fabric that doesn’t shed* plastics into the environment like synthetics* do. It’s called cotton.

CSIRO researchers are working to understand what in the cotton plant decides the length, strength and thickness of cotton fibres. They would use this information to change the plant so the cotton has the good features of a synthetic. CSIRO is the Australian government’s science research agency.

Success could result in cotton clothes that have all the benefits of cotton, plus all the benefits of synthetic, without the need for petrochemicals. Petrochemicals are made from the fossil fuel* called crude oil* and are used to make plastics and synthetic fabrics.

A cotton shirt that does not need ironing would make lots of people who hate ironing very happy. media_cameraA cotton shirt that does not need ironing would make lots of people who hate ironing very happy.

“Cotton often gets a bad rap* environmentally but it is a natural, renewable fibre unlike synthetics which are made with petrochemicals,” CSIRO scientist Dr Madeline Mitchell said.

“We’re looking into the structure of cotton cell* walls and harnessing* the latest tools in synthetic biology* to develop the next-generation* cotton fibre.”

Cotton grows on a plant. Scientists are looking at the cell structure of cotton to see if they can make it more like synthetic fibres, without the impact on the environment. Picture: Bloomberg News media_cameraCotton grows on a plant. Scientists are looking at the cell structure of cotton to see if they can make it more like synthetic fibres, without the impact on the environment. Picture: Bloomberg News

Some people believe that cotton is bad for the environment because the plant needs to be watered to grow and often has chemicals such as pesticides (to kill bugs) and herbicides (to kill weeds) sprayed on the paddocks and the plants.

However, earlier research led by CSIRO has led to huge reductions in the amount of spray needed and Australian cotton production is now the most water efficient in the world.

Cotton being harvested and pressed into giant bales in Queensland. Picture: Jamie Hanson media_cameraCotton being harvested and pressed into giant bales in Queensland. Picture: Jamie Hanson

When a synthetic material such as polyester or nylon is cleaned, thousands of tiny non-biodegradable* microfibres* enter the waterways, building up in the food chain.

But when cotton fibres flow out of your washing machine, the fibres shed are biodegradable and break down naturally.

“If we can produce next-generation cotton then we can take a large market share of the synthetics industry* and that’s a win not just for Australia’s $2.5 billion industry but also for the environment,” Cotton Seed Distributors managing director Peter Graham said. Cotton Seed Distributors supplies cotton seed to Australian farmers.

There are about 1200 cotton farms across Australia, producing cotton that could clothe 500 million people.

EXTRA READING

Shocking find in dead whale’s stomach

Denim jeans to repair knee joints

Turning plastic into something precious

Big dry hitting farmers hard

GLOSSARY

  • shed: lose, like shedding hair
  • synthetics: man-made
  • fossil fuel: mined fuel such as coal, oil or gas
  • crude oil: unrefined oil
  • bad rap: bad name; bad reputation
  • cell: smallest structure that makes up living things
  • harnessing: control and make use of
  • biology: science of living things
  • next generation: the next version
  • non-biodegradable: can’t be broken down by bacteria or other living things
  • microfibres: fibres so small they can only be seen under a microscope
  • industry: all the businesses and organisations related to one type of product

LISTEN TO TODAY’S STORY

QUICK QUIZ

  1. What is the CSIRO?
  2. What are plastics and synthetic fabrics made out of?
  3. Why were the possible negatives to farming cotton in the past?
  4. What happens to synthetics when they are washed?
  5. How many Australian cotton farmers are there and how many people could they produce cotton to clothe?

CLASSROOM ACTIVITIES
1. What are the benefits?
There are many benefits to researching and improving cotton plants to produce a newer version of cotton. Read through the article carefully to find and list all the benefits the newer version of this fabric will have. Write next to each one who or what benefits, and how they benefit. (There might be more than one beneficiary.)
For example:

a. Crumple free — Owner of clothes — no ironing, easy to pack when travelling
b. Environment — less electricity used (no ironing)
c. Are there any disadvantages to developing cotton?
d. Who or what might be disadvantaged and how?

Time: Allow 20 minutes
Curriculum links: English, Critical and Creative Thinking, Science

2. Extension: Create a poster advertisement about this new, improved version of cotton explaining the benefits of it to clothing manufacturers. Your statement should try and sway them to use this material when making clothes. Use descriptive and emotive language, as well and colour and images to help convince them they would be making the right choice for their customers and for the environment.

Time: Allow 30 minutes
Curriculum links: English, Science, The Arts — Visual Arts

VCOP ACTIVITY
The glossary of terms helps you to understand and learn the ambitious vocabulary being used in the article. Can you use the words outlined in the glossary to create new sentences? Challenge yourself to include other VCOP (vocabulary, connectives, openers and punctuation) elements in your sentence/s. Have another look through the article, can you find any other Wow Words not outlined in the glossary?

HAVE YOUR SAY: If you could ask the CSIRO to invent the perfect fabric for your clothes, what features would it have? What is most important to you? Comfort? Stretchiness? Sustainable production? Why?
No one-word answers. Use full sentences.

Extra Reading in science