Are microfiber cleaning products truly green cleaning tools? Overall, does microfiber have a positive impact on the environment or a negative impact? In order to make a proper evaluation on how green microfiber is, we must ask three key questions:
- Is it made in a green way?
- Is it used in a green way?
- Can it be disposed of in a green way?
In this article, we’ll answer these questions and go over the alternatives to microfiber and consider their environmental impacts as well.
How Is It Made?
Let’s start with the first question. Is there anything green about what microfiber is made from or how it’s manufactured? When compared to a natural fiber like cotton there is not a conclusive answer. Microfiber is made mostly from polyester which is composed mostly from an ester and a dihydric alcohol and a terephthalic acid. This means microfiber is inorganic and does not biodegrade, like cotton or paper.It also requires nearly twice the energy to produce microfiber as it does to produce a natural fiber such as cotton.
Now, let’s take a look at Microfiber’s biggest competitor: cotton. Cotton is one of the most profitable crops worldwide! According to The World Counts, 29 million tons of cotton are produced a year and, environmentally speaking, the cotton industry is one of the dirtiest industries in the world. This is due to the large amounts of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides used. The high use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides end up polluting waterways, contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, and ruin the soil. These all have direct and indirect impacts on human health and our ecosystem. Cotton is also a big contributor to water scarcity. It takes 20,000 liters of water to produce 1 kilogram of cotton, which is equivalent to just 1 t-shirt! Even an option such as organic cotton, uses much more water than conventional cotton and may produce even more greenhouse gas emissions, due to a variety of factors.
Another alternative to microfiber and cotton is paper. Paper is a natural product and even more biodegradable than cotton, which is good! The issues in manufacturing paper towels is that it contributes to deforestation and high-water use. It contributes to air pollution from the heavy diesel machinery used in logging and transportation, as well as the manufacturing process at paper mills. Plus, many paper towels are bleached in order to get the white color, which can produce environmental toxins.
How Is It Used
Is microfiber used in a green way? The answered is an overwhelming yes! There isn’t anything else on the market that cleans as effectively without using chemicals as microfiber. In fact, microfiber can effectively clean with just water for a variety of cleaning tasks. The difference between microfiber and other non-microfiber mops, towels, and dusters is that other products rely on chemicals to do the cleaning and they only remove what the chemicals release from the surface. Microfiber does both, it loosens dust, dirt, and debris from surface and takes it off the surface without the use of chemical cleaners.
An article posted by Clean Link, discusses many reasons why microfiber is able to clean more effectively and with fewer chemicals than cotton. Microfiber is one-third the diameter of a cotton fiber yet is more absorbent. Thus, microfiber can effectively pick up more dirt, and debris. Tests done by the EPA have shown that microfiber cloths and water remove up to 98% of bacteria and 93% of viruses from surfaces (EPA.org). As mentioned earlier, microfiber is inorganic. It’s a negative in terms of biodegrading, but in terms of cleaning with less chemicals it is a positive! That’s because the inorganic microfibers don’t harbor odor and bacteria like natural fibers. Lastly, microfiber uses much less water than cotton when cleaning, according to Clean Link, it can be up to 10-30 times less! And both microfiber and cotton have much better cleaning capacity than paper towels.
It’s also exponentially more durable than natural fibers like cotton. Compare a microfiber towel to a cotton bar towel. A cotton bar towel can be washed 20-30 times before it loses its effectiveness, a microfiber towel can be washed 200-300 times before it loses its effectiveness. Because cotton and paper are less durable, they need to be replaced much more often! As we discussed above this leads to more air pollution, deforestation, chemical usage, and water usage. Since a microfiber towel lasts ten times longer that certainly overcomes the fact that it’s manufactured in a less environmentally friendly way.
How Is It Disposed Of
Although Microfiber is not biodegradable like cotton or paper towels, the important thing to ask is can it be disposed of in an environmentally friendly way? The answer is YES! First of all, microfiber is not biodegradable. If you’re concerned about the environment, then you don’t want to toss worn out microfiber in trash receptacles that will end up in a landfill. However, there are numerous ways to recycle microfiber. The easiest way is to take your worn-out microfiber to a thrift store like Salvation Army or Goodwill. When they have textiles that don’t sell, they send them off to companies that repurpose them for things like cushioning and batting. Another way to recycle microfiber is to send them directly to the companies that repurpose them.
What about Micro plastic Pollution?
The biggest concern regarding microfiber is microplastic pollution. This occurs because all microfiber products can shed the microscopic microfibers in the wash and can make their way to the ocean. While this is true there are some important things to note.
- Most of the microplastic pollution is from your synthetic clothing, cosmetics, and decaying of larger plastic items (ex: water bottles).
- There is much scientific uncertainty about microplastic issues and how that affects human health (Tox Town).
- Wastewater treatment facilities generally remove 95 to 99 percent of microfibers (Surfrider)
But there are many simple solutions you can take to wash microfiber to reduce any shedding. Microfiber clothing manufacturers Patagonia and REI list some great ways to reduce the microplastics in the wash.
- Use High Quality Microfiber Products
- Invest in a Front-load Washer, which shed approximately 7 times fewer microfibers
- Wash on delicate setting and with colder water when necessary
- Install a lint filter or products that collect microfiber shedding in the laundry
The Verdict On Microfiber’s Environmental Impacts
Despite microfiber’s drawbacks which include what it’s made from and the fact that it’s not biodegradable; microfiber is absolutely a green cleaning tool. Its drawbacks are far outweighed by the benefits of microfiber which include its incredible durability and the fact that you can clean effectively without chemical cleaners. The eco-friendly benefits of microfiber are:
- No Pesticide Sprays or Synthetic Fertilizers Used in Manufacturing
- Less Water Used in Cleaning & Manufacturing
- No Deforestation
- Fewer Chemicals Used When Cleaning
- Most Durable and Reusable
As mentioned earlier in the post it is important to use microfiber that is high quality. Check out where we have our microfiber made to ensure your towels are made in a responsible and sustainable way.
- World Cotton Production Statistics – The World Counts – theworldcounts.com
- Organic farming is actually worse for climate change than conventional farming – qz.com
- Choosing Between Microfiber and Cotton – Cleanlink.com
- Green Cleaning, Sanitizing, and Disinfecting: A Curriculum for Early Care and Education – epa.gov
- Microplastics – toxtown.nlm.nih.gov
- Plastic Microfibers: Recent Findings and Potential Solutions – surfrider.org
- An Update On Microfiber Pollution – Patagonia.com
- Microfibers What We Know So Far – rei.com