Is Microfiber Contributing To Sustainable Hazards?

The cleaning benefits and reduction of chemical and water use from incorporating microfiber cloths and tools have been embraced by many cleaning professionals. New microfiber products are introduced often, and education on how to use and maintain these products is a regular topic in publications for cleaning industry professionals. In fact, a quick search for “microfiber” on yields roughly 3,000 results dating back to 2001. Similarly, there were 70 exhibitors (10 percent of the total) at the ISSA/INTERCLEAN show last year who indicated the “Cloths-Microfiber” category in their listing.

Although we’ve greatly reduced exposures from the chemicals going down the drain through the use of green-certified products, the use of microfiber products — specifically, laundering them 300 to 500 times for reuse — is contributing to a new set of hazards. Each time a microfiber product is washed, thousands of tiny synthetic fibers are shed and rinsed out with the washing machine water.

Outdoor clothing and gear company Patagonia commissioned a 2015 study from the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where “researchers found that the highest estimate of fibers released from a single jacket was 250,000, and the average across all jackets was 81,317 fibers.” These “micro-microfibers,” tinier pieces of the non-degradable synthetic fibers used in the textiles, are small enough to pass through wastewater treatment processes and end up in waterways and oceans.

Once in the water, the tiny synthetic fibers absorb hazardous chemicals from the water and can be mistaken for food by aquatic creatures. Then bigger eats smaller, and these bits of synthetic fibers with hazardous chemicals accumulate up the food chain, all the way to us.

Another 2015 study looked at the presence of human-generated plastic debris and fibers in seafood. In the seafood they examined, researchers found “anthropogenic debris in more than 25 percent of individual animals, and in over half of the species purchased and/or collected from fish markets and fishermen selling fish for human consumption.” This means the tiny fibers shed from our clothes and textiles, and any harmful chemicals they’ve absorbed, can come back to bite us when we bite in.

Since we don’t really want to be ingesting synthetic fibers any more than fish do, The Story of Stuff Project launched “The Story of Microfibers” this past March.

While the attention starts on clothing, all of the synthetic microfiber in use by the cleaning industry (washed 300 to 500 times) naturally got me thinking. I’d encourage you to watch the video, then start talking with your manufacturers and distributors. Will they offer a fine mesh laundry bag to contain the fibers shed when washing, like the Guppy Friend in development for clothes? Can they make a microfiber product that sheds less in the wash, or not at all?

We know the many positives of using microfiber, but now we know we also need to work on some impacts from that use. Asking suppliers questions is a start, and maybe we’ll see a fine mesh laundry bag for microfiber at this year’s ISSA/INTERCLEAN show. I need one for all the moisture-wicking performance clothing at home! 

MARK PETRUZZI is Senior Vice President of Outreach and Strategic Relations with Green Seal. He’s in his third decade of striving for more sustainable purchasing and operations by using his engineering powers for good.