Written by Grove Collaborative

Washing microfiber: Is it bad for the environment?

Last Updated: December 20, 2021


Microfiber is often advertised as eco-friendly since it cleans without chemicals. But washing microfiber may present concerns for the environment and the ocean—here’s what you should know.

Microfiber is a synthetic material used in many different products, including clothing, cleaning cloths, and sheets. Although synthetic fabrics are generally not considered environmentally friendly, microfiber cleaning cloths in particular have a complicated relationship with sustainability. They’re often touted as a green alternative to paper towels and cleaning chemicals — if you have microfiber cloths on hand, you don’t need most household cleaners.


But does this admittedly excellent benefit of microfiber cloths outweigh the environmental damage they and other microfiber items do to the environment?


Here, we explore the dark underbelly of microfiber pollution with Grove’s own cleaning and sustainability experts.

First, what is microfiber?

Microfibers are the tiny strands of polyester and nylon that make up microfiber cleaning cloths, bedding, or garments — including everything fleece. These fibers are up to 100 times finer than strands of human hair, and because of the sheer number of the tiny fibers found on microfiber cleaning cloths in particular, there’s a lot of surface area for dirt, bacteria, and other contaminants to cling to.


Watch this short video to see what microfibers look like and how they work:


Is microfiber bad for the environment?

Well, yes, says Danielle Jezienicki, Director of Sustainability at Grove. “Microfibers are essentially tiny pieces of plastic — they’re so small that they get into everything: plants, animals, soil, and water.”


How does this happen? “Collectively, every time we do the wash, the perpetual introduction of zillions of pieces of microplastic makes the microplastic problem worse,” says Danielle. “The stats are really alarming.”


Indeed, microfibers account for 85 percent of global shoreline pollution, and they’re responsible for a lion’s share of the microplastic pollution in our streams, rivers, oceans, and lakes. Microfibers have been found in 25 percent of individual fish and in 67 percent of all fish species in the U.S. — many of which are sold for human consumption.


But it’s not just the fibers themselves that animals and humans are ingesting.


The enormous surface area of these countless microfibers attracts and adsorbs large amounts of toxins — including pesticides, bacteria, and pharmaceutical drugs — that they come into contact with. Animals ingest these hazardous chemicals along with the fibers themselves, and then humans ingest them when they eat those animals.

Grove Tip

DID YOU KNOW?


Studies have found that a single microfiber garment can shed more than 1,900 fibers per wash

To wash, or not to wash?

One way to help prevent microfiber pollution from entering waterways is to wash microfiber items only when you really need to.


Lead Grove Guide Angela Bell is a big fan of washing microfiber much less frequently than most people do. “When it comes to activewear, people launder workout clothes way more often than they need to, since they’re usually worn for an hour or less at a time.”


Depending on the intensity of your workout, says Angela, “workout clothes can often get a few uses before laundering—just hang them to let them air out between uses.”


She also keeps a natural spot cleaner and an enzyme-based stain remover on hand to tackle minor mishaps. “This allows me to embrace my mess-prone life yet still look fresh without washing the entire garment,” says Angela. “I just spray it onto the stain, allow it to sit for a few, and blot clean with a wet cloth.”

How to wash microfiber: 4 tips to reduce shedding

Sustainability director Danielle stresses that how you do laundry goes a long way toward increasing or reducing the number of microfibers that get shed on laundry day. She offers the following tips for microfiber pollution solutions.

1. Wash full loads with the right settings

Use the shortest cycle and the lowest spin setting to keep more microfibers where they belong, and fill up that drum with clothes and microfiber cloths — when fewer clothes are in the machine, they have more room to rub against one another and create friction, resulting in more fibers shed per load.

2. Use liquid laundry soap and cold water

Powdered laundry detergents “scrub” clothes and dislodge more microfibers. Use a mild liquid laundry detergent, and wash in cold water. “Heating water for laundry has a big carbon footprint, and effective cold-water laundry detergents, like Grove’s, makes it easy to turn down the temperature,” says Danielle, noting that the heat itself damages the microfibers and causes them to shed more.

3. Dry microfiber gently with low heat

To keep your microfiber items in good condition so they shed less, dry them on a “delicate” or “gentle” cycle with a low heat setting. Better yet, hang your microfiber to dry, which will keep them in better shape so they shed less in general. If you use the dryer, empty the lint trap into the trash after each load instead of washing it down the drain and don’t use dryer sheets because they usually affect microfiber’s effectiveness.

4. Install or use a microfiber catching tool in your washing machine

A special tool to catch microfiber fibers before they leave your washing machine is best to use with all types of laundry. Below we have 3 recommendations for tools that are easy to install or use in any type of washing machine.

3 sweet gadgets for reducing microfiber shedding in the wash

1. Install a microfiber filter

A microfiber filter for the washing machine helps catch microscopic fibers shed from your synthetic laundry items before they can make it to the municipal drain.


Some washing machine microfiber filters attach to the discharge hose, while others float in the washing drum to catch microfibers before the water even leaves the machine.

2. Wash synthetics in a bag

A microfiber-filtering laundry bag is made of fibers that don’t break down. These bags filter out up to half of the microfibers your synthetics would otherwise have shed — and they’re great for protecting your delicates in the machine.


Says Danielle: “I always put workout gear, fleece, and other synthetics in my fiber-filtering laundry bag. It’s near zero hassle as long as you don’t overfill the bag — or your machine.”

3. Toss in a Cora Ball

A microfiber-trapping ball that floats in the drum of the washing machine, a Cora Ball is a softball-sized sphere with spines that are designed to prevent your sturdier clothes from getting snagged on it.


You can use more than one Cora Ball in each load to trap even more particles. Clean your laundry ball when it’s visibly coated with hairs and fibers.

Can you recycle or reuse microfiber items?

While microfiber items can’t be recycled into new products, you can donate microfiber clothes that are in good condition — or cut them into rags if they’re not.


Eventually, though, your microfiber products will likely end up in the landfill one way or another, so the best way to keep microfiber out of the environment is to choose natural fibers instead of synthetic whenever possible.

Keep the environment cleaner with more natural products from Grove

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