Microfiber cloths and the environment

It’s hard to escape the buzz surrounding microfiber cloths over the last couple of years. A particular brand has been made quite famous thanks to its somewhat, shall we say, unique, spruiker.
What is a microfiber cloth?
As the name suggests, the cloths are made from incredibly small and lightweight fibers; with a single filament 9,000 meters weighing a gram or 0.035 ounces per 5.6 miles.
The tiny spaces between the filaments are part of what gives them their cleaning power. Whereas a normal rag tends to push materials along, causing smearing, microfiber cloths pick small particles up and draw liquids away from a surface through a wicking action. Their tendency to become electrostatically charged also helps with attracting dust.
A microfiber cloth can hold up to seven times its weight in liquid, however some brands claim their cloths hold up to twenty times.
What are microfiber cloths made from?
Most microfiber cloths are made of polyester, polyamide or other polymers such as nylon. These compounds are derived mainly from crude oil or coal. Aside from the environmental issues associated with creating these plastics, burning of materials such as nylon can produce toxic smoke. 
Additionally, these materials aren’t readily degradable and will be with us for some time to come. 
As for recycling, while polyester and nylon can be “recycled” or more accurately, downcycled, a mix of different fibers in a microfiber cloth would see it being unsuitable for recycling. I’d hazard a guess that if you put one of these cloths in with your recycling, it would be thrown out at the point of sorting and head to landfill.
So what’s the advantage environmentally speaking?
As paper towel is popular in the kitchen for mopping up spills, the idea is a microfibre cloth can be used as a replacement. A well cared for microfiber cloth should last for years, which could be equivalent to hundreds of rolls of paper towels.
The superior cleaning action of a microfiber cloth can also translate to less in the way of cleaning fluids needing to be used.
Microfiber cloth care

Microfiber cloths used specifically for dry applications such as dusting should be shaken out after use. When used primarily for wet applications, they can be rinsed in warm water with a little laundry detergent. If thrown in with general washing, it’s important not to use a fabric conditioner in the load as it will coat the fibers and make them less effective. You probably shouldn’t risk chucking an older microfiber cloth in with your general wash in case it chooses that moment to start falling apart and you wind up with fibers all over your clothes.
Whatever the scenario, the cloths should be kept dry when not in use.
The verdict

(Updated December 2011)
I think one of the biggest disappointments people experience with microfiber cloths lies in how they are marketed. Some companies make rather over the top claims about their effectiveness using rather dodgy demonstrations. When the cloth doesn’t perform exactly as advertised, it’s thrown into the dark recesses of a cleaning cupboard to (very) slowly molder away. Don’t let the refund guarantee fool you – companies offer this knowing that only a small percentage of disillusioned customers will bother asking for their money back.
Microfiber cloths may not be as great as some would make them out to be, but the tradeoff between their origins and what they can offset in terms of paper towel and cleaning fluid consumption could make them a useful part of your green cleaning kit.

However, after recently reading about the potential threats posed by microplastic pollution caused by the shedding of synthetic fibers from clothing and (I assume) microfiber cloths, I’ve reconsidered their green street cred and I’m now again undecided.