Lava Linens: Plant Fiber Towels Keeping Microplastics Out of Nature

Julianne Will


Mary Swanson knows well how tightly consumer choices are interwoven with environmental and personal health.

Not only is her background in global public health, but as the CEO and Co-Founder of Boulder, Colo.-based Lava Linens, Mary has dived deeply into the science behind microplastics.

And it all started with a backpacking trip and a stinky towel. 

“In 2010 I returned from a trip to Peru, and my suitcase stunk like wet, dirty towel — everything in it. And it's because I had a microfiber towel,” Mary says. “They didn’t last very long, especially then, so we had used it enough that it got stinky. I tossed it and committed to never buying another one again.”

Mary’s search for a better alternative began in earnest when she planned another yearlong backpacking trip in 2016. This time she and her husband, Cole, were starting in South America and crossing over to Western Europe, which meant many different climates and seasons. They would be doing some long-distance cycling as well. 



“So everything we put in our pack, we really had to think about,” Mary says.

Fortunately, she, her mom, and her sister happened to be a dream team for developing and marketing premium, plant fiber textiles designed for eco-responsible adventurers. Mary’s mom, Sheila Bannigan, has a background in textile design, and her sister, Caitlin Dickman, is a graphic designer. So Mary and her mom began researching alternatives. Even for them, the learning curve was steep.

“When we were looking for materials for a towel, we didn't have any idea the difference in environmental impact between microfiber and plant fiber. We were just looking for something that worked better,” Mary says. “And then over the years we've just learned more and more, and we feel like the science is catching up.” 



They landed on using linen and created several tiny towels. “Within just a couple of weeks I called my mom and sister; I said these towels are fantastic and asked if they wanted to create them for more adventurers, because I thought people would really love them beyond us,” she says.

Mary was right: people love the towels, and they care about why the towels are made differently.  Now Lava Linens has a line of made in the U.S. hand towels and bath towels from a variety of plant fibers like hemp and TENCEL™ lyocell. 

Most of us are increasingly aware of the massive impact of microplastics. They’re not just in our oceans, but also in our food and even in our bodies. Researchers are only beginning to understand how they’re shed, how they spread, and what effects they have on our health and that of the planet. 



Microfiber towels, a petroleum-based product made of polyester and nylon, are a source of those nasty bits, along with many other things we use regularly.

It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the scale of the problem and give up. But Lava Linens stays positive by explaining the difference between Lava Linen towels and traditional towels in terms of not just sustainability but also features important to ultralight backpackers: they’re durable, packable and quick-drying, with anti-funk properties.

“Having that background and understanding how to educate the public has really been helpful,” Mary says of her public health experience, “because there is so much to talk about certain ways that keep people motivated to make changes and not just stay sad or hopeless.”


When you learn about the labor-intensive growing methods and quality that go into the fibers Mary and her mom choose for Lava Linens, it’s no surprise that sourcing is one of their biggest challenges. “At the same time,” Mary says, “the fashion industry is really moving quickly toward natural fiber textiles. So every year that goes by, we feel like we have more and more access or easier access to high-performing natural fibers. And consumers and adventurers are becoming more knowledgeable too.”

Making a lightweight and eco-conscious towel for the outdoor industry is a marriage of ideal audiences: people who want their gear to perform well and last, and people who care about protecting the places they love to explore.  

Mary says there’s more on the horizon. They’re working with a manufacturer to produce sleeping bag liners quickly and efficiently. They’re also testing some new small products and some new fibers, such as pineapple silk, banana silk, and cactus leather, as much as their smaller order quantities allow.



And while they’ve been bootstrapped since their launch in 2018, the Lava Linens team is preparing a pitch deck and assembling an advisory committee to seek funding so that they can expand more quickly. 

The business is a full-time venture these days, but Mary still makes time to get outside. She and her husband are pack-rafting through the San Juan Islands in the Pacific Northwest with their dog this fall. 

“We all spend a lot of time outside, and we always have,” Mary says. “Growing up we’d go fishing with our dad and be out climbing trees. We value the outdoors, and we want to be able to be out there and be happy while we're out there.”

Knowing the impact of her adventures on the places she loves spending time was a wet blanket (a wet towel?) for a while. “We want people to be able to travel and adventure with peace of mind,” Mary says. “So you step outside and you can breathe that air and feel like it's healthy, clean air and that you are helping the planet be healthy versus being out there and polluting it at the same time.”

And this is where Mary and her family really want to lead the way, toward new methods of making gear.


Lava Linens CEO & Co-Founder Mary

“We're aiming to be a legacy outdoor brand responsible for breaking up the outdoor industry's tight-knit relationship with Big Oil by offering natural fiber alternatives and raising awareness for the harms and dangers of plastic fibers, like polyester, throughout the entire lifecycle — from drilling the oil, to weaving, to wearing, using, and disposing,” she says.

“We recognize there aren’t natural fiber alternatives currently in existence to appropriately replace every type of synthetic textile and piece of outdoor gear. But the time is now to launch into the research and development to create desperately needed and desired eco-responsible alternatives if we want to ensure nature remains natural over the next decades.”

To Learn More

I asked Mary for some sound resources to better understand microplastics, the perils of down-cycling (think turning used water bottles into clothing) and the various types of textiles. Her recommendations:

Fibershed : A nonprofit organization that develops regional fiber systems that build ecosystem and community health.

Plastic Pollution Coalition: A nonprofit communications and advocacy organization that collaborates with an expansive global alliance of organizations, businesses and individuals to create a more just, equitable, regenerative world free of plastic pollution and its toxic impacts.

“A Poison Like No Other: How Microplastics Corrupted Our Planet and Our Bodies,” a book by WIRED magazine writer and editor Matt Simon that follows the scientists who travel to the ends of the earth and the bottom of the ocean to understand the consequences of our dependence on plastic.


Julianne Will is a writer, editor and marketer specializing in outdoor brands. When she’s not on her laptop, she prefers to be on a mountaintop. You can find her at




Travera Ultralight Towel by Lava Linens on GGG Garage Grown Gear
Travera Ultralight Towel by Lava Linens



1 comment

Skippy Longbottom

Skippy Longbottom

So they are only available in that crazy bright blue?

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