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. But just how much of an effect does cleaning have on the environment, and can green cleaning have a truly lasting impact?
The Impact of Modern Cleaning Products
Standard cleaning substances, which contain chemicals such as ammonia, ethylene glycol monobutyl acetate (EB acetate), sodium hypochlorite and trisodium phosphate are commonly used to cut through grease and limescale or disinfect surfaces. Whilst those chemicals may be effective in attacking the target area, the impact on both the environment and those coming into contact with the substances have proven to be problematic. In a study carried out by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the US, out of the 2.1 million janitors working in the states, 6% experience a workplace injury as a result of chemical exposure (PJP). Chemicals such as volatile organic compounds are proven to cause eye and throat irritation, trigger headaches and even cause health problems such as cancer (American Lung Association).
“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.”
– Margaret Trainor, founder of Atmo Home
Next to human impact, modern cleaning products have been proven to cause water pollution, air pollution and waste. The thousands of chemicals extracted from cleaning products infiltrate streams and rivers, eventually some will lead into the food chain (EPA). “Low toxicity in aquatic species such as fish or aquatic invertebrates”, such as LC50 or EC50 > 10 mg/L (chemicals used in cleaning products), have been recorded (EPA). It’s not just aquatic life that is feeling the burden of bleach. In a study conducted in 2002 by the United States Geological Survey, 69% stream across the USA found traces of disinfectants. In collected samples of drinking water, a tap water database found over 250 million chemicals across all of America’s drinking water, giving concern to scientists evaluating the health risks. More than 80% of water systems in the states have been found with contaminants linked to cancer (Aspen Clean).
Volatile organic compounds (VOC) present in cleaning products have been detected to cause air pollution. Present in household products such as air fresheners and disinfectants, the EPA “found levels of about a dozen common organic pollutants to be two to five times higher inside homes than outside, regardless of whether the homes were located in rural or highly industrial areas.” (EPA). One of the key issues highlighted was that even once the cleaning product has been used, “elevated concentrations can persist in the air long after the activity is completed” (EPA).
Next to the pollution of indoor air quality and the contribution to outdoor smog, the transportation of cleaning products results in carbon emissions (PJP). In addition to this, most standard cleaning products are packaged in non-recyclable materials. Whilst the packaging is being transported to landfill, specific hazardous chemicals require specific disposal, which if done correctly, necessitates energy for transport and disposal (PJP). Whilst the benefits of green cleaning do not circumvent transport costs and waste, recent years have seen brands promote biodegradability, low toxicity, low VOC content, minimal packaging and produced with less energy, in reaction to the evidence of harmful cleaning products.
Homemade Sustainable Green Cleaning Hacks (NBC)
With the overwhelming evidence that standard cleaning products are harmful to the environment, green cleaning hacks are an effective alternative to hazardous products. Whilst “eco” branded green cleaning products have been challenged for their performance quality, inexpensive vinegar is a firm favourite across the board. aware_ presents ten cleaning tips with substances that may well already be standing in the kitchen.
1) Buff stainless steel appliances, pots and wooden work surfaces with olive oil
2) Use alcohol, such as Vodka, to clean carpet stains
3) Apply shaving cream to watermarks on glass and wipe off after 15 mins
4) Vinegar, a popular cleaning solution, will tackle a build of calcium on all surfaces
5) Baking soda can be used to effectively tackle grease
6) A solution of baking soda and vinegar can refresh a mattress and other soft surfaces when applied
7) Dust electronics with coffee filters
8) Mix vinegar, distilled water and a drop of essential oil to create at-home glass cleaner
9) Microwaving a clean, damp sponge will kill the bacteria in the microwave
10) Adding vinegar to the dishwasher will give the glasses an extra sparkle
– by Kim N. Fischer