Litter thrown by the roadside and into your cotton field could be doing more than simply damaging the aesthetics of the countryside. That soda can, plastic bag or piece of module cover could end up as a defect in a cotton shirt, causing irreparable harm to the relationship between growers, ginners and mills.
When contaminants, like pieces of plastic, end up in finished cotton products they often appear as a discoloring in the fabric, reducing the value of that product. Often, finished products damaged by lint contamination are sold as "seconds" in secondary outlet markets.
"This decreased value and condition shrinks U.S. textile manufacturers’ profits and undermines cotton’s market appeal. Manufacturers constantly determine which raw materials they can mix for spinning that will offer the best profit potential. There’s no place for contaminated cotton in that recipe," says Dale Thompson, manager of marketing and processing technology for National Cotton Council in Memphis.
Lint contamination is a chronic industry concern, according to the National Cotton Council. Contaminants impair producers’ relationships with textile manufacturers and undermine the industry’s value-added promotional activities, the commodity group says.
As Thompson sees it, the job of cotton producers and ginners is to preserve lint quality throughout the harvesting and ginning process, providing the textile industry as clean a fiber as possible for the textile process. Otherwise, he says, "Contamination just eats their lunch."
"We need to be vigilant if we are going to take care of our domestic customer and our export customer as well," says Thompson.
Representing the lion’s share of the problem are plastics, which make up 55 percent of all lint contamination occurrences. Other common contaminants include apparel, inks, and grease and oil.
In addition to being the most common contaminant, plastic is the costliest contaminant because it is able to remain with the cotton fiber until it becomes a finished product.
Often pieces of plastic module covers that have deteriorated, or plastic twine that has been used to tie down module covers, or plastic irrigation pipe, are chopped up into very small fragments by cotton pickers and find their way inside the module. Even a small piece of plastic twine or rope can contaminate several bales of cotton if the material enters the gin. Then, the foreign material will be shredded and dispersed into the lint.
"These small pieces of plastic cause major problems at textile mills by increasing spinning costs, and by their very presence in fabric. As a result, large quantities of fabric must be sold as defective materials or seconds," the National Cotton Council says.
To limit the possibility of lint contamination, Thompson recommends repairing module covers, and discarding any damaged covers that cannot be properly repaired. They also ask that growers remove module tie downs prior to ginning, and avoid using baling twine around cotton fields or gins.
In addition, growers should use only washable marking agents to label modules, because unapproved inks and paints will stain seed cotton and lint. Growers are also urged to take every precaution to keep grease and oil separated from cotton, and insure that rags or apparel are not left near a working cotton picker, a module or ginning machinery.
"Our goal is zero contamination. To that end, we are reminding producers and ginners to be aware of the problem, and take any and all steps necessary to avoid lint contamination," says Thompson.