Q. Dear Umbra,

I want to know the greenest and zero-wastiest way to clean my bathroom and my dishes! I’m about to jump on the microfiber bandwagon because my current green goal is to become a zero-waste household, and I’m enamored of the ability to have no more paper towels to throw away OR cleaning supply bottles to recycle OR soap to wash down drains, but I’m reading some things about tiny bits breaking off and ending up in the ocean, plus the fact that the cloths themselves require petrol to make.

Michaelann B.
Provo, Utah

A. Dearest Michaelann,

Call me crazy, but I don’t hate cleaning. There’s something so satisfying about putting one’s home in shiny, grime-free order — like feng shui on the scale of dust particles. It’s cleansing for the spirit as well as the countertops. So how unfortunate that the act of cleaning brings with it some complicated questions. Here you are, trying to simplify your cleaning routine, and yet we must indeed take a good, hard look at the tools you’re using to do so.

Microfiber — which often makes an appearance in clothing, furniture, and sheets as well as cleaning cloths — is a textile made from ultrafine synthetic yarns, namely polyester and nylon. It has a few nice properties that make it especially good for cleaning and give it some green cred. Spoiler: I’m not going to recommend that you convert to it. But we’ll get to that in a moment.

First, the nice properties. For one, microfiber has a slight positive charge, which helps it attract and trap dusty bits (they’re negatively charged) rather than just spreading them around. And the very, very thin fibers — up to 100 times finer than a human hair — come together to give each cloth a much higher surface area, which boosts its cleaning power and makes it a lot more absorbent than your average rag. And studies have shown microfiber is also much more effective at removing viruses and bacteria than other cloths, even without any other cleaning products involved. All this means you can effectively skip harsh cleaning chemicals and just use water for your household tidy-up time, and less water at that — as this illustrative case shows, microfiber mops use up to 20 times less water than regular ones.

But for all its glories, Michaelann, you’ve already discovered microfiber’s dirty underbelly: For starters, it is, as you point out, a petroleum-based product. That alone might not be reason enough to toss it out with the dishwater, but this is: It’s likely contributing to the growing problem of plastic pollution in our waterways. Scientists are beginning to find tiny shreds of synthetic fabrics in oceans and lakes all over the world, tracing them back to our washing machines; a single synthetic article of clothing can shed around 1,900 fibers every wash. I haven’t been able to find any research that differentiates between the bits coming off of microfiber cleaning cloths versus, say, a fleece jacket, but experts often list both as a source of this pollutant. So every time you toss your reusable cloths into the washing machine after a calming cleaning session, they’re likely leaving a little something behind.

We should be concerned about this for a few reasons. Plastic, obviously, doesn’t biodegrade; like a clueless party guest, it sticks around in the ecosystem long after natural fibers have returned whence they came. And plastic has a nasty habit of soaking up and concentrating toxins, like carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Microplastics in particular are worrisome because it’s easy for fish and other aquatic creatures to scoop them up. The plastics and their hitchhiking chemicals can then build up in the animals’ tissues, and the tissues of larger animals that eat them, right on up the food chain to us. I don’t know about you, but I tend to pass when PCB Surprise is on the specials menu.

So despite their advantages, Michaelann, I’d hop off the Microfiber Bandwagon and back on the time-honored Green Cleaning Buggy. Reusable rags made from an old cotton T-shirt or sheets remain free, effective tools for cleaning the house, not to mention that they represent recycling at its best. (Cotton has its own planet-harming qualities, but that’s all the more reason to reuse it as many times as you possibly can.) And there’s no need to pair these rags with icky chemical cleaners: I can personally vouch for the effectiveness of DIY potions made from some combination of baking soda, vinegar, water, and sometimes a bit of castile soap. You might use a little more water than you would with a microfiber cloth, but you can be sparing with it. And I think that’s a fair trade-off for a plastic-free cleaning MO.

Good for you for going zero-wastier, by the way! Best of luck on that venture.