Everyone who finds cleaning cathartic knows that microfiber towels are one of life's little pleasures. But are microfiber towels actually better for the environment? The answer is ... complicated. And to start to get a sense of what the most eco-friendly option is, you first have to get to know microfiber towels a little better.
So, what is microfiber exactly?
Microfiber towels may feel like they're made of cloth, but they're actually made of plastic. "Natural gas is used to create plastics that are spun into fibers and weaved into a cloth that has really great properties for doing things like picking up dust and dirt," says Shelie Miller, an associate professor in the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan. "Sometimes they are made of recycled plastics, but other times they're made from totally virgin materials."
Anything that's made with recyclable materials is preferable from a sustainability standpoint than something that's not, but that's not the only issue with microfiber towels.
Why might microfiber towels be an issue for the environment?
Remember when there was so much buzz about microbeads and how bad they are for the environment a few years ago? They belong to a category called microplastics, and microfiber towels also fall under this umbrella. Bob Gedert, president of the National Recycling Coalition, explains more: "The concern I have is that it can be produced out of PET material — polyethylene or polypropylene material — both of which are technically recyclable, but in its application and use it's not recyclable. That's because of the way the material is woven and used and produced; it becomes a microplastic."
Since microplastics melt at a different temperature than other plastics, they turn into a contaminant in recycling streams. "It ruins the batch of plastics when you have an immature plastic melt where some of it is melting at a certain temperature and some is not," says Gedert. "You get a clump; it's not a pure, homogeneous mixture of liquid plastic, and therefore it's not a plastic that can be regenerated into a new product."
Not only are microfiber towels not recyclable, but there's preliminary evidence that suggests washing these towels can introduce microplastics in water.
"Some of the fibers, some of the little plastic threads can come off in the washing machine," says Miller. "That can go into our water system, and what environmentalists are concerned with now is microfibers ending up in marine ecosystems in some streams where fish and other aquatic species end up ingesting them."
And while there's no evidence that eating fish that have consumed microplastics is dangerous for humans — "The human health impacts aren't clear," says Miller — the fact that these microplastics are ending up in aquatic ecosystems is enough to give environmentalists pause.
So, should you throw out all your microfiber towels?
Definitely not! While there's no clear-cut "ranking" of which cleaning rags are more eco-friendly than others, Miller says there are a few things you can do to minimize the environmental impact of your microfiber towels (particularly if you already have some, since throwing them out isn't the most sustainable choice).
- Only wash your microfiber towel when you need to. "Limiting the amount of times you put it in a washer cycle will limit how much you abrade some of these fibers," says Miller. By the same token, try to use your microfiber towels as many times as possible before throwing them away.
- Stick with high-end microfiber towels. "There are some thoughts that if you buy the higher-quality product, it's not going to degrade as quickly," say Miller. "That's great in a couple of ways: You'll use it a lot longer, and it's also less prone to shedding some of these fibers."
- Opt for cotton cleaning rags if you can. While this still isn't a perfect choice (Gedert says there are some concerns about the resource-intensive way cotton is produced), avoiding the synthetic materials in microfiber towels is probably better from an ecosystem point of view, says Miller.
But even if you can't give up your beloved microfiber towels, take heart: At least they're better for the environment than paper towels. "You can use a microfiber towel that will be reused over and over again and save you going through many, many paper towels and less cleaning solvent — so it can be really effective in reducing overall materials used," explains Miller.