Hundreds of people – from farmers to schoolchildren – are burying their cotton underwear in their back gardens to dig up eight weeks later as part of a citizen science project called the Soil Your Undies Challenge that began in the United States before spreading overseas and is now gathering momentum in Australia.
Cotton is made of a sugar called cellulose, making it a tasty snack for microbes and the army of other tiny decomposers that live in the soil. The state of the garments when they are retrieved will indicate the health of the microbiome. If there is not much left of the cloth, then the soil is healthy and teeming with activity. If it is mostly intact, then work is necessary to improve the situation.
Oliver Knox, a senior lecturer at the School of Environmental and Rural Science at the University of New England in New South Wales, and CottonInfo, the Australian cotton industry’s joint extension programme, are behind the effort, which started in 2018 when Knox and Sally Dickinson, a regional extension officer with CottonInfo, asked 50 farmers if they would be willing to bury their underwear for science.
“Not only did they do it, but they were competing with each other, saying things like: ‘My soil is better than yours because I have more degraded pants,’” said Knox, laughing.