Microfiber is a synthetic fiber used for everything from cleaning cloths to clothes and furniture. It’s popular for its ability to sweep away dirt with less effort than other fabrics and not leaving any scratches.
This handy fabric might be versatile and lauded for its cleaning abilities, but as with any synthetic material, it’s not good for the environment.
Microfiber fabrics are mostly made from polyester and polyamide – otherwise known as plastic and nylon. The material then breaks down into individual microfibers which are smaller than ten micrometers, invisible to the naked eye.
Microfibers are a sub-group of microplastics, which pollute the environment and contribute to a lot of harm to aquatic life.
Every time you wash synthetic fabrics, microfibers are released into the water and pollute the environment by way of the plumbing system.
Is microfiber harmful to the environment?
All microfibers are made from petrochemicals, which are petroleum-based chemicals. This means they are nonrenewable and not biodegradable.
Instead of breaking down into natural components, microfiber fabrics break up into millions of tiny microplastics.
High concentrations of microfibers have been found in tap water and shellfish, though the effects of microfiber ingestion are still not fully known. We do know that they can damage gastrointestinal tracts and carry from prey to predator and through generations, but more studies are needed to understand the extent of harm to humans and wildlife.
Microfiber is non-recyclable, as the microfibers contaminate the recycling process. While you could reuse microfiber material for something else, ultimately it will be thrown away and sent to a landfill. If microfiber fabric is sent to recycling, the microplastics will taint the rest of the recyclable materials – resulting in even more waste!
One of the biggest benefits of microfiber cloths is their ability to clean bacteria and viruses off of surfaces. Coupled with being reusable, they’re better than single-use disinfecting wipes and help reduce waste. But every wash will result in microfibers being released into the water.
The clothing company Patagonia has been at the forefront of the fight against microfibers.
In 2016 they commissioned a research project to investigate the clothing industry’s impact on microfiber pollution. They returned to the subject in 2017 to consider the next steps, including a second research project to discover a test method to help reduce microfibers.
They also began providing customers with the following information to help look after synthetic clothing properly to further reduce microfiber pollution:
- Buy what you need and make it last.
- Wash synthetic clothes less often and only when necessary.
- Invest in fiber filters.
Is microfiber fabric toxic?
Microfiber fabrics are made of petrochemicals, formed from fossil fuels, and created entirely synthetically. Because of this, they never break down into natural products, and they also bind to other chemicals.
We don’t know how toxic it is for humans to inhale or ingest microfibers in the air or in our water. Some studies suggest microplastics can lead to reproductive issues, compromised immunity, lung inflammation, and reduction of hunger in organisms, because of the chemicals binding to them. These include carcinogenic chemicals.
They’re also flammable, and when burned microfiber textiles emit toxic gases, especially when they contain polyethylene terephthalate (PET).
PET is the most common thermoplastic resin made with polyester and is also a concern in microplastics, as it’s commonly used in recyclable plastic bottles and very widespread. PET microfibers have been found to cause multigenerational toxicity in roundworms, resulting in behavioral inhibitions. Even worse, PET can absorb other pollutants which are often carcinogenic or otherwise toxic.
Does microfiber pollute?
Microfiber is considered an “emerging pollutant” by scientists studying its adverse ecological impact.
Thanks to the widespread distribution of microfibers via waterways, these microplastics are mistakenly ingested by aquatic life. In 2019, it was expected that 1.5 million trillion microfibers were already present in the ocean. It’s thought that every laundry wash of synthetic fabrics releases around 9 million more microfibers.
Between 95 to 99 percent of microfibers can be removed by wastewater treatment facilities, leaving as much as 65 million microfibers remaining in water each day. Once microfibers have been released into aquatic environments, it’s very difficult to remove them again.
Other studies suggest that up to 40% of microfibers survive wastewater treatment plants, which is more likely for local and older facilities.
Four years before the 1.5 million trillion estimation of microfiber pollution, The Guardian reported that scientists had documented microfibers in the Great Lakes. They found a mixture of microplastics, with microfibers accounting for around 4% of the litter found there.
In Lake Michigan, scientists discovered “12% of the debris consisted of microfibres”. While microplastics like microbeads can often pass through the body of fish, microfibers were found to get stuck in gastrointestinal tracts of fish and their predators.
Samples taken from open ocean environments have also found higher densities of microfibers and nanofibers than in coastal areas. The microparticles found in these samples were predominantly microfibers, 57% were synthetic and a further 12% were semi-synthetic.
It’s undeniable that microfibers pollute waterways, and it’s also known that microfibers can pollute the soil.
Polyester fibers may harm soil decomposers like enchytraeids and isopods; enchytraeids were observed to avoid ingesting long fibers (possibly due to external harm). While short-term exposure to polyester fibers was noted to not be harmful, there is a lack of multigenerational studies to determine whether long-term effects are present.
How to reduce microfiber pollution
The answer to reducing microfiber pollution isn’t to ditch all your microfiber possessions! If you’ve already bought microfiber fabrics, you can continue using them until they’re worn out enough to sustainably replace them.
In the meantime, you can reduce how many microfibers are released by:
- Washing microfiber fabrics for short durations and less frequently.
- Always wash a full load of washing, don’t split them into smaller loads.
- Use them as long as possible instead of replacing them early.
- Place dryer lint in the bin, don’t wash it down the sink.
- Use cold wash settings, as high temperatures release more microfibers.
- Swap to liquid laundry detergent instead of laundry powder, especially eco-friendly laundry detergent.
- Use wash bags or balls to catch microfibers.
- Buy only natural fabrics, not synthetic fabrics, like cotton.
- Spread the word to friends and family.