April 23, 2019

Microfiber – a DEFINED TERM that Requires Explanation and Understanding - By George Clarke, CEO of UMF Corporation

Recently, the AATCC announced it would be exploring the issue of water polluted with microfibers, caused in part by the laundering of textiles made from synthetic textile fibers. Since then, several posts have been written on this topic, including a recent Q&A focused on AATCC’s involvement in the work.

While the overarching mission – to reduce small fiber fragment pollution in water – is noble, I am concerned by how the AATCC and many in the industry are leveraging the term “microfiber.” The term is being used when describing the potential issue of fiber-fragments escaping laundry systems and accumulating in water systems.

Microfiber, a term which is an actual unit of measure in the textile industry, is defined as: “a fiber that is less than 1 denier but greater than 0.3 denier.” Unfortunately, manufacturers of disposable wipers are misusing the term “microfiber” to convince customers that they are contributing to the problem by using durable microfiber reusable wipers and should change to disposable “microfiber” products – especially in the healthcare market. An example: Is Microfiber Contributing To Sustainable Hazards?

Such misinformation could result in tens of millions of disposable microfiber products languishing in landfills for generations to come.

In reality, high quality reusable microfiber products are extensively tested for use in many industries including pharmaceutical clean room manufacturing. The Helmke Drum test, in particular, measures the exact number of particles given off by a material to determine its level of particulate shedding. This is especially important in applications such as pharmaceuticals and healthcare, as you cannot have particle contamination in a facility making products that are injected into the human blood stream.

Moreover, bicomponent splitable filaments that result in microfibers are made of polymers, typically polyester (PET) and even more durable polyamide (PA). Unlike cotton and other cellulosic fibers, which are very short fibers and a major contributor to micro-fragments in water systems, PET and PA are man-made continuous filaments which are very durable.

We also must consider that micro-fragments of all kinds of fibers have a multitude of sources – from vacuum bags and their contents to discarded paper towels in landfills to non-woven materials (e.g., spun bond, spun lace, hydroentangled, etc.) used to make all the various, supposedly “flushable wipes” which are clogging public sewer systems worldwide.

To eliminate the confusion and distinguish between true high performance microfibers and other materials, an alternate term should be considered. For example: Micro-fragments, Fiber particulate or Fiber fragments. The definition could be as simple as: “small fiber fragments measuring 5 mm or less originating from both natural (e.g., cotton) and manmade synthetic fibers (e.g., polyester) used in woven, knitted and nonwoven materials of all kinds.”

A more precise term is called for when examining this important issue.

Opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the author and not necessarily those of AATCC