Green Living

by Naomi Mihilewicz

Thoughts on Waste-Free Cleaning

I was raised in a household where, in general, hazardous products were avoided in everyday cleaning tasks. Cleaning the bathroom at my parents’ house consisted of using a) a rag, b) baking soda c) vinegar and d) water. Here’s how avoiding commercial (and hazardous) cleaning products keeps my garbage levels down, and my home healthy.

Now that I live in my own home, I can’t say that much has changed. I do buy the odd household cleaning product, but generally not ones advertised on TV and not ones that have hazardous symbols on them. My husband, on the other hand, comes from a background of using a wider variety of scented and specialized cleaners. It took some compromise to find products we both agreed on.

Like my husband, you also might question my choice to avoid commercial products shaped like ducks, or promoted by bald men in white t-shirts. My reasons are pretty basic 1) Health: I want to limit our exposure both because of my own immediate reactions (who needs to breathe anyways?) and the long-term health effects for my family and pets. 2) Packaging: you usually have to buy multiple products since they are made to be so specialized. Also it is not ideal to be recycling or throwing away bottles that contain(ed) hazardous materials.

Many people assume that cleaning products sold in stores are essentially safe – even if they have a hazardous symbol on them; otherwise why would they let the public loose with them? I agree they won’t kill you, immediately anyways, if used as directed. However, there are two main concerns that I have with them, that don’t usually show up on the label.

1) Manufacturers cannot predict what other products the user may wind up combining them with, intentionally or not. It is anybody’s guess what concoction you might be creating if more than one product is used on the same surface.

2) Many cleaning products off-gas volatile organic compounds (VOCs) as they are used. These negatively affect indoor air quality, causing everything from headaches to cancer. The US Environmental Protection Agency has a good introduction to VOCs on their website: I find it ironic that commercial cleaners claim to keep you safe by killing potentially harmful bacteria, yet their noxious side-effects can be just as harmful. 

My motto when it comes to cleaning products is: keep it simple. No harsh chemicals, no dyes, no scents. Here are my suggestions for low waste, low-cost, and low-to-no synthetic chemical household cleaning:

1. Look for mechanical cleaning help over chemical. For example, try reusable dryer balls in place of dryer sheets, or microfiber cloths and water in place of sponges and cleaners.

2. Buy simple cleaning agents with short ingredient lists, like vinegar. There is usually less packaging, less cost and they require far less storage space.

3. Make your own home-made alternative cleaning products. For recipes and ideas see a past Waste Watch article called “Cleaning out your Cleaning Products”.

Still want some help picking through what is out there? Consumer Reports has put together a good article on buying truly ‘green’ products, including what specific ingredients to avoid. Go to

[Source: April 2011 WasteWatch ]