Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

Clean up the planet: a guide to eco-friendly cleaning products

The rise in eco-friendly cleaning products reflects the importance of sustainable lifestyle choices to make way for a greener planet. Harmful chemicals and single-use plastics have dominated the cleaning industry for years, but now is the time for a change. Two writers share their thoughts on switching to eco-friendly cleaning products and the positive impact this could have on the environment.

As students, you rarely find us in the cleaning products aisle of Tesco but when you do, sure enough, we’re scouring for the cheapest, most convenient product, labelled ‘multi-purpose.’ However, do we ever stop to think about where the contents of these products go after we’ve rinsed it off the sink, or flushed it down the toilet?

All products, even skincare ones, contain chemicals. Worse still, many household cleaning products are packaged in single-use plastic or aerosol cans containing propellant gases which damage the ozone layer.

Many of us have taken lockdown as an opportunity to finally thoroughly clean, organise and tidy our homes. However, by cleaning we can be doing a lot of damage to both ourselves but also the environment.

What is the impact of cleaning products on the environment?

Certain ingredients in commonplace cleaning products are often not safety tested but are still in use, meaning they’re capable of polluting streams and rivers. They could take a considerably long time to degrade to render themselves harmless, and some may not even degrade at all.

Not only is it harmful to aquatic species, our high consumption of seafood means it could easily enter the food chain. The chemicals can even be absorbed through the skin when coming into contact with such polluted water, and all of these effects can lead to fatal consequences.

What about the effects on people?

It is no secret that many cleaning products use toxic and dangerous chemicals. These chemicals can irritate eyes, the throat and cause headaches. Studies have even shown potential links to cancer.

Some cleaning products release chemicals including volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which are linked to asthma, eczema, reduced fertility and an increased risk of cancer. The mixing of products containing bleach and those containing ammonia can create gases so toxic they can be fatal, turning your cleaning routine into a much more serious matter. Many of the risks are particularly topical today as they can inspire or provoke respiratory illnesses, making them especially dangerous in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

What alternatives are out there?

To reduce our impact on the environment and our health, we can choose to purchase better products. Ecover uses biodegradable, mostly plant-based ingredients. The company prides itself on being phosphate-free, using local ingredients where possible in an ecological factory working towards zero-carbon and zero-waste production, as well as selling cleaners in recyclable bottles. Wilko has also introduced an eco-cleaning bundle, composed of recycled and recyclable bottles containing cleaners made from plant-derived ingredients. Companies like Wearth London sell zero-waste starter kits containing cleaners in sustainable packaging, with refill sachets and equipment to use them.

Method’s floor cleaner is slightly pricier than your basic cleaning products, but worth it when it comes to ensuring pets are not harmed by cleaning products and saving the planet. The brand is also 100% vegan and cruelty-free, so not only is it safe for bunnies but also has not been tested on them – win-win. The brand has got every aspect of cleanliness covered, including hand and body washes, and they mainly use plastics 1 and 2 to ensure maximum recyclability of their products, avoiding all use of PVC. Even their wipes are biodegradable.

For cheaper alternatives, Tesco has recently launched its own Eco Active range, whose products remind of Method’s but for half the price. Its products are made of plant-based, non-toxic and biodegradable ingredients, including washing up liquid, fabric conditioner, detergent, toilet cleaner and multi-surface cleaner. As a bonus, both Method and Tesco’s brand smell beautiful – a nice alternative to bleach. 

You can make most of your own cleaning products

Thankfully, all laundry detergents are usually made bio-degradable, although they can still contain harmful ingredients, such as phosphates. These can still irritate the skin, and worse yet, disturb the nutrient balance in streams and rivers.

There are so many effective, accessible and affordable cleaning alternatives that can be used in your household regularly. Anyone who watched Kim and Aggie’s How Clean Is Your House back in the day, will know that baking soda, lemon and white vinegar are super accessible and very effective cleaning solutions that are far more natural, and far less harmful to the environment.

If you want to buy cleaners, buy in bigger bottles made at least with partially recycled plastic and try to buy the most concentrated formulas containing 20% or less water, so that there is less packaging. Even better, you can make most of your own cleaning products.

We can make small-but-mighty adjustments to how we consume

Toilet bowls can be scrubbed with soap, water or baking soda. Shower tiles can be cleaned with an old toothbrush and a baking soda water paste which will remove mildew. Window cleaners contain nerve-damaging butyl cellosolve so instead use water, white vinegar and a tablespoon of lemon juice.

Try to avoid clogging the sink by removing hair or food from it and if it does get clogged use a plunger. Ovens can be cleaned by soaking them overnight with a mix of water, baking soda and soap. Keep the air fresh by regularly airing out your room or house. Baking soda can be used to remove odours and you can improve the smell using pure essential oils, wooden cedar blocks or dried flowers like lavender.

We currently live in a world that revolves around making money and doing it fast, and not of the wellbeing of the very ground we walk on, so it’s not always easy to find accessible alternatives to clean our homes while helping the environment, but there are options. If we make ourselves more aware of the realities of the products we use and their potentially harmful consequences, we can make small-but-mighty adjustments to how we consume, and, as a collective, reform our harmful behaviours on the environment.


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