Green cleaning is a really easy way to reduce your impact on the environment and reduce your exposure to potentially harmful chemicals, as well as having the potential to save you loads of money.
Sometimes we clean to kill bacteria or mould to reduce our risk of illness, and at other times it is simply to remove a build-up of dirt. Whatever your aim, there are many fantastic options for green cleaning which all have the capacity to remove bacteria and mould and clean your home just as effectively as conventional chemical cleaning products.
Bacteria and moulds
Bacteria are living organisms and moulds are microscopic fungi. Conventional cleaning products aim to kill them with chemicals. However, if you simply remove the things they need to survive, they will die as well.
To survive, bacteria need moisture, heat and food. Moulds need moisture and darkness. To ensure we don’t allow them to live where we don’t want them, we simply remove these conditions. We can do this safely with home-made green cleaning products, and/or with manual cleaning methods.
Sometimes we feel like we need a ‘product’ to help remove a build-up of dirt, mould or scale on a surface such as a shower. Any cleaning product will contain either acids or alkalis that help break down a build-up of materials to allow them to be more easily removed. The problem with conventional products is that they often contain ingredients that are damaging both to our health and to the environment, such as chlorine or ammonia. The good news is that there are plenty of green cleaning methods and products that will allow you to do just as good a job on the grime!
While there is no doubt we can reduce the environmental impact of our cleaning and laundry products, the idea of them ever being completely ‘safe’ for the environment is doubtful, with the sole exception of water only cleaning. What we are really aiming for is a ‘more environmentally responsible’ cleaning option that has the least impact possible.
It is worth considering product choice from a couple of angles.
- Is it safe for me and my family?
- Is it safe for the environment?
- Even if it safe for my health, does the production of the ingredients cause environmental damage?
Here are some of the green cleaning options you have available to you and some pointers on how to choose between them.
As mentioned above, water and microfibre is perhaps the only completely environmentally ‘safe’ cleaning option because there are no chemicals whatsoever involved. The most well-known brand of microfibre cleaning cloth is Enjo, but there are many others on the market and these are available online or in the supermarket. The tiny fibres in the cloth trap dust, dirt, grease and grime and remove it, without which bacteria can’t survive. These cleaning cloths can also prevent a build-up of grime if used frequently and can be a complete cleaning solution. The cloths can be washed in a washing machine and will last for many years.
Choosing a green cleaning product:
If you prefer to use something besides water and elbow grease, you have a large range of products to choose from. Unfortunately, not all of them are equally as good. Be aware that just because something is labelled as being ‘natural’ or ‘environmentally safe’, it may not be your best option.
There are several things to look for when purchasing a green cleaning product. It should:
- be concentrated and contain no fillers or extenders (this usually means they need to be diluted rather than used straight from the bottle)
- not display strong warnings, for example ‘keep away from children’ or ‘poison’
- be locally or at least Australian made so that transport is as low as possible and so that we know it complies with our laws on safety and health
- be multi-purpose – so it can be used for a variety of cleaning jobs
- be low in sodium salts which cause salinity in soil and water
- not contain phthalates (commonly used as solvents and in synthetic fragrances), some of which are banned in some European countries because they are considered of risk to our health
- not contain palm oil (names indicating palm oil include palmate, palm fruit oil, palm oil kernel, palm stearine and many others)
- be a liquid rather than a powder whenever you have a choice (liquids have a lower sodium content than powders)
- be made from plant-based ingredients; be readily biodegradable
- have recyclable packaging and minimal packaging
- work as well or better than a conventional product!
Help with choosing a green cleaning product
- The Eco Scribbles website includes a series of articles that help explain how to choose a green cleaning product in simple-to-understand language.
- The Shop Ethical Consumer Guide is available as both a pocket-sized print guide and a smartphone app. It rates brands on all manner of issues including manufacturing criteria, animal testing, fair trade practices, use of palm oil, chemicals, packaging and more.
- The Fresh Green Clean company has been providing green cleaning services and green cleaning training across Melbourne since 2001. They have some great information under their ‘articles’ tab.
The importance of not over-using your green cleaning products
Don’t forget that, almost as important as what products you use, is how you use them! There’s no point buying or making a great green cleaning product, and then using way too much of it for the job. Any chemical we use for cleaning - even bi-carb and vinegar – can harm the environment if used at too great a strength for the job at hand.
Our aim when cleaning is to use as little product as we are able while still getting the effect we need. This should mean that after use the active ingredients in the product will have been completely utilised by the cleaning process. If this occurs, there will be little active ingredient left to be washed into our waterways and pollute our environment.
There are several easy-to-purchase, safe ingredients that are commonly used for making DIY green cleaning products. They are usually used in conjunction with a microfibre cloth. Remember that even though these ingredients are natural and safe, some items such as vinegar and lemon juice are acids and may damage benchtops if allowed to sit undiluted on the surface. If in doubt, test your homemade cleaning product on a small, inconspicuous section of benchtop material.
Commonly used ingredients for DIY green cleaning
|Bicarbonate of soda
|| A mineral that can be made into a gently abrasive paste. It also neutralizes acid-based odours in water and absorbs odours from the air. Very low toxicity.
Is an acid that breaks down mineral deposits and will neutralize alkaline substances such as scale from hard water. Remember to use caution when using vinegar on your furniture.
Cuts grease and deodorises
Tea tree oil
Has anti-bacterial properties
An acid that acts as a mild bleach and is good for polishing. Inhibits mould growth, deodorises and removes stains. Remember to use caution when using lemon juice on your furniture.
Pure soap flakes don’t leave a film on the surface you are cleaning, are biodegradable and low in toxicity.
If you make your own cleaning products, ensure you clearly label the container to prevent accidental use or ingestion.
Eucalyptus oil all-purpose cleaner*
- 15 drops of eucalyptus oil
- 1/2 cup white vinegar
Add the eucalyptus oil and the vinegar to a clean spray bottle. Fill with tap water and mix. Great for showers, bench tops and basins.
Lavender disinfectant spray*
- white vinegar
- 6 drops of lavender oil
Add the lavender drops to the spray bottle and fill with white vinegar. Great for cleaning the bathroom and toilet or anywhere you would usually use disinfectant or antibacterial spray.
Orange oil all-rounder*
- 15 drops of orange oil
- 3 tablespoons bicarb
Add all ingredients to the spray bottle and shake well. Good for use anywhere you would use Spray and Wipe.
- 125gm beeswax, grated
- 500ml raw linseed oil (for dark timber) or olive oil (for light timber)
- 1 tsp lavender or rosemary essential oil
Melt the wax in a heat-proof bowl over a saucepan of simmering water. Add oil and stir for three minutes. Remove from heat and stir in essential oil. Transfer to a clean jar and allow to set. Using a soft cloth, rub sparingly into timber, leave for 30 mins and then polish off.
- 4 tbsp bicarb soda
- 1 tbsp water
Mix ingredients into a stiff paste and apply with a damp sponge. Buff residue with a dry cloth. The simplest cleaner of all for sinks, oven doors, stovetops and inside mugs.
- 1 tsp bicarb soda
- 1 tsp pure soap flakes
- a squeeze of lemon or dash of white vinegar
- 1 cup warm water
Mix ingredients and shake until soap is dissolved. Spray and wipe with a kitchen sponge. This is a general cleaner, safe for use anywhere in the home.
- 2 cups white vinegar
- 1 cup water
- 25 drops eucalyptus oil
Combine all ingredients in a spray bottle. Shake well before use, spray onto a soft damp cloth and rub. No need to rinse. This is an all-purpose cleaner for grease and dirt. Ideal for stainless steel sinks, tiled and timber surfaces and plastic finishes such as fridge shelves.
- 25 drops lavender essential oil
- 2 tbsp methylated spirits or vodka
- 500ml distilled water
Add the oil to the alcohol in a clean dry bottle and leave to dissolve for 24 hrs. Add water and decant into a spray bottle. Shake mixture thoroughly before use.
Sources: *Stay At Home Mum, #Handyman Magazine (issue July/Aug 2007)