08 July 2008

think less, do more: cleaning greener

A while ago, my friend Heather wrote to me, asking:
"I was wondering if some day you might give advice on how to be a "green house cleaner"--I find myself using a lot of paper towels, and I'm not sure whether it matters what cleaning products to use. How do you dispose of your waste in a green way--aside from recycling!"
A bit belatedly, I'm happy to share a few easy tips!

Without having to go the distance of making your own cleaning products (even though it's fun and super economical), let's see what we can do to make our normal routines a bit more eco-friendly.

Paper Towels
If you are using paper towels in your home, purchase ones that are unbleached and made from recycled paper. If you are looking to reduce the usage of paper towels try these tips:

for use as napkins: tear each sheet into 2 or 4 pieces-- this is probably all you'll need! or simply use washable cloth napkins.
for cleaning: switch to lint-free towels that you can use again and again, or even more economically, use pieces cut from old towels or t-shirts.

Product Recommendation: The Twist family of biodegradable cellulose and bamboo sponges and cleaning cloths are of a style that's all the rage in Europe, and are great for green cleaning. They are easy to wash and reuse again and again, but are affordable enough that they can be disposed of when no longer effective. To replace paper towels, try the Twist European Sponge Cloth.

Cleaning Products
I try to steer clear from chemical exposure as much as possible, and it's especially important to me to use non-toxic cleaning products and to keep a chemical free home. (Read more on why this is important). What you keep and use in your home affects not only whoever is using the product via exposure, but also who and whatever else is living in the home by disturbing air quality, creating chemical residues, and heightening or creating respiratory or contact allergies.
(I started realizing the importance of using natural products after logging lots of hours in comme
rcial kitchens where I had a lot of contact with bleach and industrial strength soaps-- my hands turned to raw eczema ridden beasts! Now between wearing gloves and using only friendly products, my hands stay in a much more friendly disposition).

Many people have a whole cabinet or two devoted to various sprays, powders, scrubs, and solutions that they 'need' to keep their house clean. The easiest thing to do would be to purchase non-toxic cleaners from natural foods stores or online, or to make your own. You really only need two or three products to do most of your household cleaning. I would also recommend a non-toxic dish soap and laundry products.

Some of my favorite green cleaning products: Seventh Generation Dish Soap; Method Disinfecting Wipes; Mrs. Meyers Clean Day Laundry Detergent and Dryer Sheets

Air Fresheners
Between all the sprays, spritzes, plug-ins, and candles, we have no shortage of opportunity to make our spaces 'smell good'. But all air fresheners are not created equal and most contain perfumes and chemicals that can aggravate allergies and settle on our skin and into our bloodstreams. There are other ways to make your home smell fresh.
get some fresh air! Open windows on opposite sides of your home for a cross breeze and turn on standing or ceiling fans to encourage circulation.
simmering spices. Simmer a pot with aromatic herbs and water - cinnamon sticks, cloves, and nutmeg are lovely options. Refill with water partway through if it's getting low.
burn baby burn. Burn candles scented only with essential oils, use essential oil diffusers, or use natural incense or burning sage to cleanse the air. These products can be found online and at natural food stores.

Disposing Of Your Toxic Products
If you are interested in making the switch to green products but don't know what to do with what you have, you can of course, use them up and recycle the containers, or pass the partially used products off to an organization with limited resources that could make use of them. If you would prefer to dispose of them, read the labels to see if there are any special disposal instructions, and also consult your local hazardous waste department-- I would resist the urge to dump them down the sink, because despite filtration and water cleaning systems, it's still likely that some of that will make their way into our waterways. Here's a site with a few suggestions.

Recommendation: Green-Kits can get you started with a Green Cleaning Kit with all of the products you'll need!

Make Your Own!
I've started making my own cleaning supplies and it's fun how cheap and easy it is! And you could get away with just having white vinegar, baking soda, and lemon juice on hand and clean just about every surface in your house, but you can get a little fancier and make your own mixes to keep on hands, add some essential oils, like lavender or tea tree, for anti-bacterial and good-smelling benefits. Here's a guide to making the switch to natural products and a few easy make-at-home ideas.

A few other websites with 'recipes' for making your own natural cleaning products:
25 Non-Toxic, Homemade Cleaning Supplies; Recipes for Homemade Cleaning Products; Non-Toxic Home Cleaning

Waste Not, Want Not
As far as trash and recycling goes, well, it's a big issue. The easiest solution is to purchase fewer packaged items, and when you do try to purchase items that are packed in recyclable containers. Keep the old 'reduce, reuse, recycle' adage in mind, and you'll probably find new solutions everyday!

Reduce. When it comes to cleaning products, by using cloth towels and reducing paper towel usage, that's a big help, but you can also usually buy cleaning supplies in larger containers and use those to refill the smaller containers you already have. You can also streamline the products you have and limit it to just a few, and that will help, too.

Reuse containers as much as possible to store bulk food-- bring them with you to the bulk aisle and save the life of a container that way! Or use them in other creative ways throughout the house. Also check with after-school centers, churches, schools, and other organizations in your neighborhood to see if they can use them for craft projects or other activities. Reuse and repurpose other things around the house too-- jam jars become containers for bulk grains or drinking glasses, a water bottle can be cut and used as a funnel, office paper can be reprinted on, or flipped over and cut into quarters, stapled and used as notepads.

Recycle. Recycling paper, cardboard, plastic, and metal is of course, a great option to reduce what is sent to the landfill, but also be sure that you are following the recycling restrictions for your area, and know what can and cannot go into the bin. (Hard plastic lids, for example, are not usually curbside recyclable; and the tetra-pack containers that rice milk and other beverages often come in are regrettably not recyclable either). In NYC, the Park Slope Food Co-op accepts recyclable items from the community that cannot be picked up curbside. In Austin, Ecology Action of Texas accepts a wide range of recyclable material and also can help you find other centers.

Compost. Food scraps account for a large portion of our daily trash output, but you can save produce and other food scraps and compost them in your yard in a pile or special bin, in your house (with a worm bin), or take them to a local farm, farmstand, or community garden who will probably be more than happy to take them off your hands. Do a little looking around in your area and you'll probably find a way. Since I've started collecting scraps to drop off to the LES Ecology Center's table at the Greenmarket, I've noticed a 50% reduction in what I throw out. Sometimes more. And I can feel happy that the scraps will turn into a fantastic and nutrient-filled earth that can make plants grow stronger and make a new round of produce tastier!

You can actually compost quite a lot of things, but it really depends on where you're composting it and what it's being used for. Community gardens, farms, and other recipients of your food scraps will each have their own set of 'do's and don'ts', so if you're not composting for yourself, you should check what they allow.

Where to Buy
If you have a Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, or other natural foods store nearby, you'll definitely be able to find these green products. Many regular grocery stores and big stores like Target are carrying many of these products too. If you want to save some money and/or don't have easy access to stores that stock these products, buy in bulk and/or split big orders with friends or neighbors, by purchasing directly from the company or another online retailer like Amazon.com.

If you're making your own, you can purchase extra large bags of baking soda for $4 at large grocery or wholesale stores, lemons are available at every grocery store, and white vinegar is only about $1.50 a gallon. If we could only say the same for gas...

Have you tried any make-at-home products or are there any other tips you'd like to share or get more info about? I'd love to know-- post a comment!

1 comment:

Aja Tahari Marsh said...

If you're interested in learning more, RiverWired recently posted these green cleaning tips in a 'Green Auditing Your Home' series.

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