By Brian Clark
Microfibre products first appeared on the cleaning market over 10 years ago and have rapidly gained acceptance throughout the cleaning and healthcare industry. They are widely touted by suppliers as a panacea for cleaning all surfaces and as super efficient cleaning aids that either eliminate or minimise chemicals, depending on who you listen to, and reportedly offer a more sustainable solution compared to standard disposable and reusable cloths. The market acceptance of the claims made for microfibre has been phenomenal considering the huge variations in quality and the fact that manufacturers’ and supplier assertions are often unsubstantiated by independent research. In fact, researchers in the healthcare area are now beginning to publish work that cast serious doubts on the effectiveness of microfibre cloths used in surface decontamination after reuse, particularly in the healthcare environment, even after as few as 10 wash cycles.
One are of concern is that microfibre cloths are not all the same. There are huge variations in quality and cleaning effectiveness which is borne out by one studyi which shows that there are considerable differences between different brands of cloth in reducing bacterial contamination from surfaces.
Another study published in the Journal of Hospital infection in 2008 and in American Journal of Infection Control in May 2010ii has shown that microfibre is somewhat superior in reducing surface contamination when new, but is no better or even worse than standard cloths after multiple rewashes. The study showed that the uptake of microorganisms was greatly enhanced with wet cloths rather than dry cloths and confirmed that new microfibre provided an advantage over cotton cloths in removal of bacteria. However, the efficacy of microfibre deteriorated after reprocessing and the study found that standard cotton cloth and sponge cloths performed consistently than microfibre after 10 and 20 wash cycles. Indeed, reprocessed microfibre was found not to be significantly better than paper towel for surface decontamination.
Microfibre features in most green cleaning specifications for many good reasons including, most importantly, its absorbency and its ability to remove soil. There seems to be little argument that quality microfibre products used in the right context with proper training will enhance cleaning and reduce chemical consumption. But questions must be asked when manufacturers claim that microfibre is more sustainable than disposable or reusable standard cleaning cloths due to its durability and reusability. Indeed, some manufacturers are boasting over 300 washes per cloth.
If you think about it, something is not quite right here. Sustainability is about protecting people, protecting the environment and protecting natural resources. However, microfibre is a synthetic polyester or nylon material manufactured from petrochemicals. Microfibre is not made from a renewable resource and is not biodegradable. The main place of manufacture is China which doesn’t have workplace protection or a good environmental record. But the big issue that is never discussed is how much of the water, chemical and energy saved in the cleaning process is negated by the water, energy and chemical used and the waste water produced in the rewashing and drying process.
A quick calculation based on the capacity of a water efficient domestic washer and dryer indicates that approx 308 litres of water and 1kg of laundry detergent would be required to wash one 40 x 40 cm 350g/sqm microfibre cloth 300 times. This would release about 154 litres of waste water and chemical at 50% absorbency into the environment and would utilise approximately 26 KW of energy which, based on coal fired generation, would release around 28 kg of green house gas per cloth into the atmosphere. While there are no figures to compare microfibre with disposable cloths, there is some difficulty in understanding how this is a sustainable solution.
This article may raise some hackles but rest assured that in writing it, there is no axe to grind or any vested interest involved. It is simply to raise some of the questions that should be asked when evaluating the effectiveness and environmental impact of any cleaning product or cleaning system. The author hopes that it stimulates discussion and response.
i Moore G. Griffith C. A laboratory evaluation of the decontamination properties of microfibre cloths. Journal of Hospital Infection 2006; 64; pp 379-85
ii Magda Diab-Elschahawi et al. Evaluation of the decontamination efficacy of new and reprocessed microfibre cleaning cloth comparde with other commonly used cleaning cloths in the Hospital. American Journal of Infection Control May 2010; pp 289-292.