Zero Waste Cleaning Products Putting the Joy Back into Cleaning

The demand for more environmentally conscious cleaning products has risen in recent years. As the fashion, travel and energy industries have gradually shifted to become more sustainable, we have become more AWARE of the impact our lifestyles have on the planet.

Many cleaning brands have embraced sustainable branding—emblazoning products  with words such as “eco”, or bottles wrapped in green packaging. As is the case with all industries, consumers are burdened with deciphering the authentic intention of the brand: just how much greenwashing is taking place on the supermarket shelves? Atmo Home, the minimum waste cleaning brand, is giving consumers the chance to think consciously about hazardous chemicals and embrace a sustainable mindset when caring for their homes. Aware sat down with founder Margaret Trainor to learn about the complexities behind the industry and reasons to get excited about cleaning…

The Complete Clean

aware_: What’s the story behind the name Atmo Home?

Margaret: You know that feeling you get when you open the door to your home, it’s clean, it’s fresh, it’s organized and you just breathe that sigh of relief and contentment? That’s what I wanted it to feel like. Growing up when we walked into a nice restaurant or lovely hotel, my dad used to always say, “There’s a nice atmo here.” It’s short for atmosphere, but to me it means so much more. It’s about the vibe, the feeling of being in a space, and how that makes you feel as a person. I chose Atmo Home to reflect that – the feeling of being at home both within your space and our atmosphere.

aware_: What were the motivations behind starting Atmo Home?

Margaret: Climate change scares me. I worry about whether it’s safe to have children, what life will look like in the future. It’s so overwhelming to think where to start? Will my actions have an impact?

I felt at war with myself between wanting beautiful things – like Aesop, Glossier, Diptyque – and trying to be more sustainable at home. What if sustainability didn’t require sacrifice? What if sustainable products were even better than what’s already out there? That was really my motivation in creating Atmo Home. There are so many people out there, you and your readers, that are putting in the effort to get educated about climate change and make meaningful changes in their daily lives. I wanted to create a product that honours that – that actually works, smells great, looks good on your shelf, and is as close to zero waste as we can get. I feel strongly that every business has a responsibility to do the work and ensure that their products are as sustainable as possible, and set a path to make them even more so in the future.

I do think one of the biggest issues in the industry is that it’s been undervalued. Instead of caring for the things we have, we’ve been taught to throw them away and replace them with new things. In that process, the science and the art of care has been distilled down to something cheap and expedient, where we expect little from our products except that they seem to work and don’t cost that much. I think caring for your environment, both home and planet, is a critical element of self-care. The products we use should honour that. And because we spend so much of our lives actually cleaning, wouldn’t it be nice if those moments were spent using something you actually liked?

Multi-Surface Cleaner

aware_: Could you tell us about some of the more problematic issues surrounding the cleaning industry?

Margaret: From food to pharmaceutical production, the chemical industry is the largest producer of hazardous waste released into the environment. In 2018, Germany alone produced approximately 23 million tons of hazardous waste (Statista). One of the biggest drivers of this issue of waste is systemic—stemming from the regulation and structure of the chemical industry.  The hazardousness of a substance is calculated based on the risk relative to exposure.

The core issue here is that regulation of the chemical industry sidesteps the core issue,  which is not disposal but design. In other words:  are the chemicals we design, produce and use safe for us and for the environment? Green chemistry aims to reshape this industry by designing chemicals that are ‘benign by design’ from the very beginning. Atmo Home works with a green chemistry institute in Berlin called the Chemical Invention Factory which incubates emerging solutions in this space.

Right behind the chemical industry is the packaging industry. The consumer products space just hasn’t evolved enough here. I genuinely don’t understand why. These large corporations have the resources and manpower to switch to more sustainable materials, but they choose not to. They have abundant resources – research and internal teams that care passionately about moving in a sustainable direction, but I am shocked by the lack of radical action on materials. If larger corporations moved in this direction, not only would they have a huge impact on the amount of packaging waste in the world, but they would also lower the price and barrier to entry for other smaller brands. Working with sustainable materials is more expensive, but it’s a price worth paying. We worked really hard to price our products fairly and if we can make them within the same range as these big brands while using sustainable materials – they really don’t have an excuse!

aware_: We’ve seen a rise in package free shops, do you think the industry is really beginning to see a change?

Margaret: I absolutely think that things are changing and that is so exciting to see. I do think it’s important to strike a balance between being package free and having some packaging. For example, our tablets are hygroscopic, which means they absorb moisture from the air around them. To maintain their effectiveness it’s important to protect them from light and air, so we do need packaging. The sachets we use are FSC and TUV-certified for home compostability and are made of wood-based cellulose.

I was happily surprised at the amount of highly sustainable packaging materials we were able to find. It certainly wasn’t easy, but there is definitely a way to keep the packaging experience in our lives without the waste.

Bathroom Cleaner

aware_: Can you talk us through the process of creating one of your products? How do you make sure to avoid those harmful chemicals?

Margaret: I get most of my product ideas at the gym. I’ll be running or working out and then nearly fall off the treadmill, grab my phone and start making notes. I’ll put these notes into a product development document that basically sketches out what the product is, what it needs to do and what it looks like—then sets parameters for what it can and cannot contain. For our tablets, I was adamant from the beginning that they needed to be vegan and must be free from triclosan, parabens, phosphates, ammonia, chlorine bleach, and phthalates.

Sometimes I’ll make a prototype or two in my kitchen and test it around my place just to get a sense for the product. Some go well, some don’t and leave me with a lot of dishes to clean! I’ll then share this with our research chemists and together we’ll figure out whether or not it’s possible. Then we do extensive market research and testing. I’ve been known to sit in people’s kitchens, watch them clean, talk to them about what they like/don’t like/are missing in their lives. Basically we determine: Do people actually want this? Who is it for? Does it solve a problem in their lives? How can we make their experience better?

From the beginning, we define any chemicals that we won’t use and any other sustainable specifications. We also aim to produce as locally as possible and use only ethically sourced materials and ingredients. Sometimes we have to make concessions; for example, we wanted to produce our tablets without any palm oil-based surfactants (basically the component that makes breaking down grime possible). We tested coconut oil surfactants, but the mixture was really sticky and wouldn’t hold a tablet form. Ultimately, we decided to fund an academic study on plant-based surfactants to find the most holistically sustainable option. Our research found that palm oil as a crop has a higher yield and lower land/resource usage than other alternatives, so we made the decision to use ecologically certified palm oil surfactants in our first batch. We’re currently working on a longer-term solution here to switch this out for good and there are some exciting new alternatives made through fermentation that are still in the research phase but look promising.

For us, the best way to avoid harmful chemicals is to be deeply involved in the research from day one. We are so lucky to work with research chemists at the TU in Berlin. Atmo Home would not exist without them!

aware_: What are your hopes and dreams for the future of both Atmo Home and the cleaning industry?

Margaret: Through Atmo Home, my hope is that we can support people on their road to zero waste with products that make those everyday moments enjoyable.

For the cleaning industry, my hope is that green chemistry will fundamentally change the way we produce chemicals and bring us closer to a sustainable future.


by Eliza Edwards