Farm Progress

Cotton gin trash now valuable by-product

Roy Roberson 2

March 18, 2009

6 Min Read

One man's trash is another man's treasure is not only the adage upon which yard and garage sales are based, it's also an apt description of the heightened demand for what used to be called cotton gin waste.

In the past few years cotton acreage has dropped across the Southeast, prices have fluctuated dramatically and King Cotton's crown seems to be crumbling. Not so for cotton gin trash — it has earned its new name Cotton Gin By-Product.

While a high percentage of the cotton grown in the U.S. finds a home overseas, the cotton seed and other by-products, formerly known as gin trash, stay right here. The market is good, prices are good and demand is up for these products. Supply may be a problem for 2009.

Speaking at the recent annual meeting of the Southern Cotton Growers Association and Southeast Cotton Ginners Association, Tom Wedergaertner, director of cottonseed marketing and research for Cotton Incorporated noted that cotton has lost about a million acres of production in the U.S. in the past few years.

As late as last year, he says, cotton crush has remained about the same. In 2009, more reductions in cotton acreage could tighten supplies of cottonseed and other cotton by-products.

U.S. cotton producers intend to plant 8.11 million acres of cotton this spring, down 14 percent from 2008, according to the National Cotton Council's 26th Annual Early Season Planting Intentions Survey. Assuming average seed-to-lint ratios, 2009 cottonseed production is projected at 4.35 million tons, down from 4.43 million last year. Of that total, approximately 2.5 million tons will go to crushing plants.

Most of the oil from crushing plants will go into the food industry. Wedergaertner points out that the price of cotton oil is typically higher than the price for cotton lint. In the summer of 2008 lint sold for 60 cents a pound and cottonseed oil for 80 cents a pound.

Research has proven that high quality biodiesel fuel can be made from cottonseed oil. However, Wedergaertner contends it's currently too valuable to the food industry to be practical as a source for biodiesel. In the future, he notes, cottonseed oil may be used to clean up diesel engines.

The real value of a bale of cotton includes much more than lint, the CI executive says. At current prices, cottonseed meal makes up about $100 of the value, cottonseed oil nearly $95, cotton linters $39 and cottonseed hulls $36.

Cottonseed meal makes up 45 percent by weight and 38 percent of value of cotton. Hulls make up 27 percent of weight, but only 13 percent of value. And, cotton linters make up only 8 percent of cotton weight, but constitute over 15 percent of the value. Linters are one of the fastest growing of cotton's by-products.

Cotton growers will get a round-about boost from upcoming changes by the Federal Communication Commission. The change to all high definition programming and subsequent consumer moves to flat screen televisions will help the cotton industry, because cotton linters are used as part of the construction process for flat screen TVs.

Gin trash is also getting a more respectable name from the ‘green movement’ in the U.S. Several cotton by-products are now sold with the green label of approval. The green recognition comes primarily from research that shows a bale of cotton gin trash contains more BTUs of energy than it takes to dry a bale of cotton.

In Arkansas, a large poultry producer uses gin waste briquettes to heat his poultry houses.

A new densification process turns cotton gin trash into cost-effective 2-inch briquettes that can be used as a replacement for fossil fuels such as gas, oil, or coal. This effort was part of Cotton Incorporated's Biofuel Initiative where research was targeted to identify opportunities to add value to the 2.5 million tons of gin trash from each season's crop.

Research funded by Cotton Incorporated, conducted at the USDA-ARS Gin Lab in Lubbock, Texas has demonstrated that briquetting is a more cost effective and easier to manage process than pelleting.

Densifying gin trash into briquettes delivers a BTU output comparable to wood and/or corn-based pellets. The BTU's can be increased to 9,000 per pound by adding a small amount of crude cottonseed oil or crude glycerin (a by-product of biodiesel production, Wedergaertner says.

Chili's restaurant chain makes a somewhat unique use of cotton by-products. In one Texas Chili's, the big (six-foot by 3-foot) chili pepper over the door is made from 35 percent cotton carpal.

Cotton carpal is the woody stem of the cotton boll. At harvest cotton modules are wrapped in polyethylene for transport and storage. When the cover is removed cotton carpal tends to stick to the plastic, creating a mess for ginners.

As more and more cotton goes from bales to modules, the supply of cotton carpal is likely to increase. Technology also seems to be playing into the hands of the transition from cotton gin waste to cotton gin by-products as new one-pass cotton pickers that module cotton on the go hit the market.

Even the recent slump in the U.S. housing market may create new markets for cotton. In unison with the declining price of new houses has come the demand to lower building costs. Fabricated shower stalls, some made with up to 35 percent cotton carpal, are in demand for lower-cost housing construction in some parts of the Cotton Belt.

Cotton hydromulch for erosion control has been a boon to one northeast Alabama company — Mulch and Seed Innovations, in Centre, Ala.

Third generation cotton grower and entrepreneur Andy Ellis, looking for a way to use what was then called cotton gin trash, founded the company in 2003. Currently, the company manufactures three highly successful, cotton-containing highway mulches, which are also known euphemistically as ‘landscape blanket’.

The on-going search by health conscious Americans for recreational opportunities created an off-shoot market for Andy Ellis' highway mulches. Athletic programs, including most Southeastern Conference football fields make use of these cotton-based mulches to more quickly grow and replace high value prescription turf on athletic fields.

Most of the limitations on using cottonseed for livestock feed are based on cotton plants containing gossypol. However, this limitation plays right into the marketing hands of the new image of cotton gin trash.

Gossypol is a natural toxin present in the cotton plant that protects it from insect damage. “Glandless” varieties of cotton have been developed which have very low levels of gossypol. Unfortunately, these varieties need high levels of insecticides to yield well.

Ecotourism operators and hunting clubs have begun using cottonseed meal to feed deer because non-desirable animals, like raccoons won't eat feed containing gossypol. Wild hogs, which have become a major problems for some hunting operations in the Southeast, will eat it — but not much.

Deer on the other hand love gossypol-containing cottonseed meal. Though used on a limited basis in the Southeast, because of the usual abundance of naturally-occurring feed, land owners and hunt club operators in Texas alone are expected to use over 30,000 tons of cottonseed meal in 2009.

Cotton growers and ginners alike will likely continue talking ‘trash’ when it comes to gin waste, but in a rapidly expanding marketplace, cotton gin by-products has a much more valuable ring to it.

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