Is microfibre really green cleaning?
Microfibre technology has become synonymous with green cleaning – but if you are using a cheap commercial cloth, then it probably isn’t very green at all.
Here are four essential strategies you need to know to make your investment in quality microfibre work well and be green.
Not all microfibre is green
A renewably-sourced, non-hazardous, concentrated and biodegradable ‘green’ cleaning chemical will probably have far less environmental impact than a cheap commercial microfibre cloth that is manufactured with poor environmental controls and must be thrown away in a couple of weeks.
Sure, you can use certified green chemicals with your cheap microfibre cloth – but that doesn’t make the cloth green!
In contrast, a quality professional microfibre will be manufactured to strict standards, guaranteed to be washed and re-used up to 300-500 times and importantly, provides evidence that it can clean effectively using water only.
Yet the upfront costs of quality microfibre and the perception that it won’t work without chemicals, continues to deter its widespread adoption. Even if quality microfibre is purchased, it can easily fail if there is no system in place to support it.
Read on for four essential strategies for making microfibre work well and be green.
1. Compare the quality
After implementing microfibre technology at St Vincent’s Health Australia Darlinghurst Sydney, Environmental Services Manager, Rob Gordon, concluded, “Microfibre can out-perform any other cloth on the market, but it comes down to the quality you buy”.
So what is quality microfibre?
Microfibre must be less than 1 denier in width. To put that in context, 1 denier of yarn means that 1 gram in weight must be at least 9000m (9km) in length. However the filaments in ‘ultra-fine’ microfiber should be 0.5 or even less (in comparison, a human hair is 20 denier).
The microfibres used for cleaning, are made by fusing polyamide (nylon) and polyester, then splitting them under high pressure. This process creates myriads of tiny filaments, that when woven into tool and wiped over the surface, enables it to lift and absorb microscopically small soil particles (including bacteria).
While the size is important, so is the volume of fibres contained in the tool, and the strength of the weave. Not only does the density determine how effectively the tool will be able to clean, but it can also help to reduce the volume of microfibres entering the waterways – a serious environmental concern.
Evidence suggests that fibres are more likely to be shed during the manufacturing and laundering process, from loose weaves and worn fabric.
How can you identify quality?
Give a cloth a quick tug and hold it to the light and you’ll quickly tell the difference between a cheap and a quality brand. While there is no need for suppliers to disclose whether the fibres have been split or not, here are some simple comparative tests you can conduct in your workplace that will give you an indication:
- Smear test: spread butter onto a mirror, wipe clean, then visually compare the result;
- Smell test: sprinkle instant coffee onto a damp surface, wipe clean, then sniff the surface to compare the results,
- Absorbency test: Remove cloths from the washing machine so they are equally damp. Pour a measured dose of water onto the surface, wipe clean, then time how long it takes for the surface to dry.
A manufacturer of quality microfibre tools must be able to provide independent evidence of their efficacy (effectiveness). There are various tests and standards. Their suitability will depend on the level of cleanliness required for the environment, and the country of origin. For example:
- ASTM G122-96 – USA Standard test method for evaluating the effectiveness of cleaning agents, (useful for agents and processes);
- NS-INSTA 800 – The Nordic standard for the evaluation of cleaning efficiency;
- Swab sampling – Laboratory tests showing the percentage elimination of specific microbes after cleaning;
- ATP testing (Adenosine Triphosphate) – Used to measure the level of organic soil remaining on a surface after cleaning.
Additionally, look for a guarantee of durability, such as 300 or 500 washes, and a minimum washing / drying temperature of 70c.
Several standards also exist for comparing the environmental impact of microfibre. For example the EU Ecolabel for textile products (EUR-Lex – 32014D0350–EN) has strict criteria for the: minimum content of recycled nylon; toxicity of dyes; levels of VOCs in production; durability and manufacturing controls.
Several other European ecolabel standards have adopted the EU Standard, such as the ‘Nordic Ecolabelling for Supplies for Microfibre Based Cleaning’.
2. Calculate the costs and benefits
Take a whole-of-life view
Of course, premium quality has a premium cost. Professional microfibre can cost up to seven or eight times more than its cheapest cousin, which is a significant barrier for many companies that operate on monthly budgets.
But if this upfront cost is compared to the annual whole-of-life costs associated with using traditional cleaning chemicals and commercial tools, it paints a different picture. While the outlay at St Vincent’s was $2,500 per ward, Gordon found that this outlay was negated through savings made in chemicals, waste disposal and lost work time.
Costs versus benefits
A professional microfibre system can offer multiple environmental and health benefits that need to be factored into your cost evaluation, such as:
- Durability and reusability can be up to 300 – 500 times
- Minimal water-use, packaging waste and transportation
- Elimination of chemical hazards
- Reduction in strains caused by wring mops,
- Reduction in risk of slips and falls by leaving floors drier
- Effective removal of surface contamination reducing the spread of infection
Gordon’s team also conducted extensive performance testing and found that their tools performed at peak for an average 1.5 – 2 years. After that they were transferred to administration offices, further extending their life-span and value.
3. Write a Cleaning Plan
Why microfibre investments fail
There are so many ways in which a microfibre system can fail, I could fill a book! But the main reason why microfibre leaves a surface dirty, is because the cloth is dirty.
It doesn’t matter whether your cloths are colour-coded or not, wiping surfaces with dirty cloths will spread contamination and leave surfaces smeary and dull. This is not ‘cleaning’ – it’s ‘dirtying’.
It is very important to realise that microfibre needs to be immersed in warm water before it can release the bacteria and soil it is carrying. Rinsing under the tap on-the-go may be the common commercial practice, but it is not effective.
Using the one soiled cloth to clean multiple surfaces, not only spreads contamination and leaves surfaces looking unsightly, but it will significantly reduce the life of the cloth and make cleaning harder to achieve. This wastes time and encourages cleaners to add chemicals – which also reduces the life of the cloth.
Quality microfibre needs a quality plan
Participants in the FGC Benchmark Program use a tool to develop a Cleaning Plan that documents the whole cleaning process: the supply, storage, handling, maintenance and testing of all surfaces that are frequently touched (high touch points).
Your Cleaning Plan should include at a minimum:
- A colour-coding system per area or replacement per surface
- The quantities of cleaning tools carried per area
- The replacement protocols per surface, soil levels, area types etc
- The carrying and storing systems, to prevent contact between clean and dirty tools (and toilet brushes please!)
- The maintenance system for washing and drying tools
- The training resources and frequencies
- The surface testing and monitoring methods
The laundering system
A commercial washing machine should be installed on site, or at a centralised location, or tools sent to a commercial laundry daily so that the tools can be washed within 12hours of use.
The washing machine should be capable of:
- Rinsing heavy soil away with cold water before laundering
- Reaching 60c for washing cloths used for normal cleaning, and
- Reaching and maintaining 65c for 10 minutes (or 71c for 3 minutes) to achieve thermal disinfection.
Always use a low-foaming laundry detergent that does not contain bleach, softeners or zeolites. Air-drying or drying in a cool dryer is best if you have the facilities and time to do so, as hot driers will ruin the fibres.
4. Be fit for purpose
Of course, every building environment has different requirements, uses, surfaces and budgets. Microfibre cleaning cannot be treated as a one-size-fits-all solution.
In healthcare settings, reusable microfibre is generally restricted to environmental cleaning applications while clinical areas and infectious rooms tend to use disposable tools, or tools with embedded sliver with anti-bacterial properties.
A full professional microfibre system will not be suitable for all commercial settings. There are many practical barriers to its implementation such as:
- the lack of space, plumbing or permission to install a washing machine;
- the surface condition, texture or soil level/type that could damage the tools, or
- the size of the facility or contract could prevent its cost effectiveness.
However, many of these obstacles can be overcome with a little planning and investigation. To do so, it is necessary to shift the perception of microfibre being a consumable, to an investment. But for those who have done so, the results speak for themselves.
While the old saying ‘a bad workman blames his tools’ rings true, if you want to make microfibre work successfully, you also need to have quality tools.
About the author: Bridget Gardner is CEO of Fresh Green Clean, Australia’s leading sustainable cleaning experts.
This article was first printed in Inclean magazine, September 2015 and has been updated in 2018