A Brief Look at Cleaning Products and Sustainability
The chemicals used to clean homes and businesses can have a negative impact on our planet.
- By James Ritter
- Apr 07, 2023
Chemical cleaners became mainstream during World War I when the animal fats that made up traditional soap became hard to get hold of. As an alternative, manufacturers replaced them with synthetic ingredients. This then progressed into readily available laundry detergents in the 1950s, which evolved and become more widespread until they turned into the variety of cleaning products we know today.
However, while these chemicals are undeniably effective at getting rid of dirt, they also contain several ingredients that can be harmful to both humans and the planet. Volatile Organic Compounds, fragrances, flammables and irritants are commonly found in standard household cleaners, but research has shown that these can have a detrimental effect on health, even if they’re only used weekly.
Additionally, chemical cleaners can be harmful to animal and plant life, especially if they get into our water systems. They reduce the quality of the water, which can have a negative effect on aquatic life. Furthermore, they can affect air quality, and contribute to smog formation.
In contrast, natural cleaners are ones that primarily use natural components as the active ingredient. Confusingly, this doesn’t mean that they don’t have synthetics added to them—especially as some companies will use naturally-occurring chemicals, like citric acid, or plant-based versions of manmade chemicals.
It’s important to recognize that the term ‘natural’ is not regulated, so consumers should read up on products before purchasing them to fully understand a brand’s sustainability credentials. Some companies openly acknowledge that they have reduced manmade chemicals as much as possible but are still not 100 percent synthetic-free.
What Supplies do you Need for Sustainable Cleaning?
For those who are concerned about the environment, sustainable cleaning goes further than simply the product inside the bottle. It can be difficult to imagine an alternative to simply picking up your cleaning products during your weekly food shop, but moving away from plastic will make a significant difference to your carbon footprint. Additionally, streamlining your routine to simply use a few products rather than a different type of cleaner for each room or surface will also make an impact.
What’s the Problem with Plastic?
Plastic is a common sight in cleaning aisles, due to being inexpensive, easy to mass produce and having hygienic qualities. While some types of plastic can be recycled, many people simply throw them away. Or, they don’t get recycled correctly, meaning that they end up in landfills despite being separated.
This is a problem as traditional plastic bottles can take up to 450 years to decompose in the ground. In water, the situation is even worse—plastic never really decomposes but instead breaks down into microplastic particles that seriously harm marine life. Our reliance on plastic and the issues around disposing of it properly have led to around 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic currently floating in the world’s oceans, killing 100 million marine animals each year.
Sustainable Cleaning Tools
Glass bottles. Some eco-friendly companies offer their products in a concentrated drop or tablet form, which you can then mix with water to get a full bottle. There are multiple benefits to opting for concentrated refills—not only will you cut down on the number of plastic bottles that you’re using, but you’ll also save money as they’re often cheaper per milliliter than buying a new bottle. The refill supply chain uses fewer lorries due the smaller packaging.
Whether you opt for buying refills or making your own DIY cleaning solutions, you’ll need something to mix them in. Instead of using plastic spray bottles, consider buying glass ones. Not only will they look beautiful on your shelves, but they can be washed easily and recycled if they break. In fact, glass can be recycled multiple times without losing its quality, so you can be reassured that any accidental mishaps by you won’t result in wasted materials. The bottles tend to be made of thick, durable glass, and some even have UV protection, which stops the products stored inside from going off.
Washable cleaning cloths. Many of us rely on single-use cloths to do our cleaning. Especially for cleaning bathrooms or dirty surfaces, it can feel more hygienic to wipe the mess and then throw the cloth away. However, this creates a huge amount of waste over time, and some of these cloths actually contain microplastics—even some multi-use ones release plastic when washed.
To avoid this, make sure to opt for cleaning cloths that are both microplastic-free and multi-use so that you can wash them safely and reuse them for a longer period of time.
Bamboo mops and scrubbing brushes. As we’ve mentioned, plastic is hugely problematic when it comes to cleaning products. As well as bottles, it’s also present in the handles of washing brushes, dustpans, mop handles and toilet brushes, to name a few. These products don’t last forever—in fact, plastic can break quite easily with hard use, such as frequently being used for cleaning. Since not all plastic can be recycled or broken parts easily replaced, this can mean that every year, thousands of cleaning tools end up in the landfill.
Ever-more frequently, bamboo is being used as a plastic alternative for those who want to be more eco-friendly. Bamboo is the fastest-growing plant on planet Earth, meaning that it is ultra-sustainable—any bamboo that’s cut down can simply be replaced. This gives it the edge against traditional wood, which can take a long time to grow back and reach maturity. It’s very durable and is naturally antimicrobial and antibacterial, which makes it an attractive prospect for cleaning products. One of the advantages of plastic is that it is highly sanitary, so consumers who may be concerned about losing this by switching to wooden handles may feel reassured when using bamboo.
When buying bamboo products, make sure to check that they’re not infused with plastic—there are some mixed material products on the market that do not offer the same sustainability credentials as pure bamboo.
James Ritter is a digital consultant with a particular interest in sustainability and has advocated for content focussing on both local and global environmental issues. James majored in creative writing at university and is always eager to expand his knowledge around different subjects.