Reducing our Mayors’ Cleanup Footprint: Cotton and T-shirts

Check the blog as we add updates about our efforts to improve the footprint of the 11th Annual Mayors’ Cleanup.

WMEAC is committed to hosting an event that aligns with our mission. This year, as a part of this effort, WMEAC and the Mayors’ Grand River Cleanup Committee have decided not to give away free t-shirts as we customarily have.

Traditionally, we estimate the number of participants that will attend one of our clean ups and order enough shirts to make sure each of those people can receive one. If we’ve promised free t-shirts, we want to follow through on that promise! However, estimating participation is an inexact science. As a result, our recent clean ups have produced a vast surplus of shirts, and regardless of process or material, too many t-shirts are a waste of resources. After donating boxes and boxes of extra t-shirts to Goodwill recently, we decided we needed to make a change in practice.

After all, many of you are passionate about the river and are there to join our community in caring for it. Our post-event surveys have told us that the river is why you participate–not the shirts, not the beer, not the food. We want to continue to facilitate an event that’s about service, community, and making a difference. The extras are fun, but neither WMEAC nor our sponsors want giveaways to overshadow the importance of our work.

Participants will still have a chance to purchase a t-shirt. They’re going to be very cool! Site leaders, sponsor teams, and headquarters team members will all receive their t-shirts for free. We want to offer the opportunity to make a choice, and most importantly, we want to reduce waste.

The passion of the West Michigan community for its water resources is special. As a result of your enthusiasm, the Mayors’ Cleanup is one of the nation’s largest volunteer cleanups. We look forward to seeing you on September 20.

Read here about the tremendous footprint of cotton:


Cotton is the most popular apparel fiber in the world, accounting for 52% of the demand in the year 2004. Cotton is a demanding consumer of water and pesticides.

After World War II, chemicals were introduced to cotton production due to the increased demand worldwide. Cotton consistently ranks as the top pesticide user in agriculture and is responsible for roughly 25% of insecticide use around the world. An acre of California cotton will consume 300 pounds of fertilizer and 13 pounds of other chemicals, including harmful organophosphates. In India, 5% of the land devoted to agriculture is used to raise cotton, but cotton accounts for 54% of the annual pesticide use. Farmers there often lack the proper tools to spread and manage pesticides and fertilizer. In addition, there is not abundant information about the impact that these chemicals can have on their health and the ecosystem around them.

Some pesticides are currently classified as ‘moderately hazardous’ and some are even considered ‘highly hazardous’ by the World Health Organization. Highly hazardous pesticides are toxic nerve poisons and can contaminate ground water.

While the levels of pesticide use present a big problem, cotton’s water use is also alarming. Only about 47% of cotton is grown under rain-fed conditions, where the only water it receives for growth is from the sky. That means that 53% of cotton fields are irrigated. The irrigated 53% produces about 75% of the world’s cotton. Irrigated cotton is frequently grown where fresh water is already in short supply. There are two terms that have been developed to create a distinction between the two water sources for cotton: “green water” is the water that comes from rain and “blue water” is the water that comes from irrigation.

The global volume of water used to produce cotton is roughly 198 cubic gigameters per year. For reference, 1 gigameter = 1,000,000,000 meters, so 1 cubic gigameter = 1.0 x 1027 cubic meters. That’s 1.84 x 1034 gallons of water. For reference, the Great Lakes contain roughly 6.0×1015 gallons of water. About half of this water is blue water and about half of it is green water.

There is also water used in the manufacture of cotton textiles: 30 cubic meters per ton for bleaching, 140 cubic meters per ton for dyeing and 190 cubic meters per ton for printing. Finishing also requires water, about 140 cubic meters per ton. In relation to cotton consumption, the global footprint is around 256 cubic gigameters per year. Cotton uses a lot of water, and usually, most of it comes from blue water. Blue water has more of an environmental impact because it pulled from ground and surface water resources. Green water would have been evaporated naturally or would have been used by other plant sources.

The water used by cotton can also contribute to pollution. Water is used to rinse excess chemicals from the cotton during its processing, and this water can end up in local watersheds. The water used in production is often contaminated with pesticides and insecticides and this can also end up in local water sources.

Cotton, in the end, accounts for roughly 2.6% of global water use.


Get involved! Sign up here to participate in the 11th Annual Mayors’ Grand River Cleanup.