Is microfiber bad for the environment?

  • Date: May 13, 2022

As we try to live a more planet-friendly lifestyle, every day-to-day item comes under scrutiny. After all, small choices that we make can add up to make large environmental impacts. Microfiber is a common household item which can be found most cleaning cupboards and garages across the country. It is touted as an eco-friendly option by some due to its longevity (largely by those trying to sell it), here we will have a look into the finer details – is microfiber bad for the environment?    

Firstly, what is microfiber?

What an item is made from gives away clues as to whether it is good or bad for the environment. Microfiber is, generally, made from a blend of polyester and polyamide (nylon). These are both types of plastic. It is such an effective fabric due to the different qualities that polyester and polyamide bring. Polyester brings a superior wicking ability and stiffness, whereas polyamide is softer and brings an element of stretch. The exact blend will vary from brand to brand and use to use.

So, is microfiber bad for the environment?

Microfiber is not biodegradable

An item is said to be biodegradable if it can be broken down by micro-organisms like bacteria. The component parts of natural materials can return to nature. Microfiber cloth is, essentially, made from plastic – not something microbes are keen to munch on. When it comes to the end of its usable life, it will not biodegrade. Unfortunately, this means it can’t be popped in the compost pile either. The organic materials around it would break down whilst a microfiber cloth would persist indefinitely.

Microfiber contributes to pollution

When you wash any synthetic fabric, microplastics are released into the waterways. These travel to  water processing facilities, and it is estimated that up to 40% will ultimately end up in rivers, lakes and the ocean. Since microfiber is a synthetic material it too releases microplastics every time it is washed. These can cause havoc for marine life, and even end up on our dinner plates…

If you already own microfiber cloths, wash them sparingly. Washing them at a lower temperature is also said to minimize the amount of microplastics shed.  

Lots of energy required for manufacture

Polyester and polyamide are both derived from crude oil, a fossil fuel. As well as being a non-renewable resource, fossil fuels have significant impact on the environment. These include deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions. Microfiber contributes to this.

The manufacture of nylon, a component of microfiber, is extremely energy intensive. Chances are the energy will not come from clean, renewable sources either! It also requires a large amount of water, especially in the phase where the fibers are cooled. But the impact does not stop there in nylon production. Nitrous oxide is released during the process due to the need for adipic acid production. For each kilo of adipic acid produced approximately 30 grams of nitrous oxide is released. This will contribute significantly to climate change.

However, it is not all bad news – microfiber has some ‘green’ qualities….

Pesticides and fertilizers not used in microfiber production

Just because an item is made from a natural material does not mean that it is good for the environment! Pesticides are chemicals that farmers use to kill pests. These can have a significant impact on the environment, from decreasing soil quality to changing the physiology of animals.

Cotton production is also associated with a particularly high level of nitrogen-based synthetic fertilizers. It is claimed that fertilizers used in cotton production are some of the most harmful around. These help the cotton grown optimally, but at a huge environmental cost. Although not perfect, since microfiber is synthetic it is not associated with these environmental impacts!

Less chemicals needed for cleaning

Using a microfiber cloth for cleaning can also reduce your day-to-day use of chemical cleaners. It has been claimed that most surface debris can be removed with just water a microfiber cloth.  As well as being better for health (chemical cleaners can affect your lungs), simply using water can avoid environmental impacts, such as water pollution, which are associated with chemical cleaners.

The bottom line

Although they have some eco-friendly aspects, microfiber cloths do not have glittering ‘green’ credentials. When they are being used, they do not require many chemicals and they last a long time. However, when they are manufactured, they contribute to the fossil fuel industry and use up a lot of energy compared to alternatives. Re-using any cotton fabric scraps as cloths is arguably the most eco-friendly cleaning solution. You are diverting the fabric from landfill whilst avoiding the downsides of microfiber and a new cotton cloth.