Cleaning and decluttering don’t have to put a strain on our planet!
Picture the scene: you come home from a busy day of lectures and seminars, and your doorstep greets you with stacks of glossy takeaway leaflets and post addressed to previous tenants. The living room is littered with dog-eared decorations,. and you could swear that the suspicious carpet stain in the corner is watching you from afar. Shuffling into the kitchen, you notice overflowing recycling bins and marks on the floor; could be dirt, could be potential deductions from your deposit. You sigh, not having the nerve to inspect them yet. A quick trip upstairs reveals the bathroom in a sorry state, with empty shampoo bottles cluttering up the windowsill and grouting, turned a dodgy colour. Your bedroom is home to a pile of dirty washing and the makeshift waste paper basket that is supposed to be your desk.
That weekend, you vow to start the ‘Spring Clean’, armed with a fresh bag of cleaning products and tools from your local discount store. All of them are packaged in non-recyclable plastic for no discernable reason. How might the typical cleaning routine continue?
Maybe you’d collect all the ‘rubbish’ (leaflets, decorations, plastic bottles etc.) in a black plastic bag, not stopping to separate recyclable materials from the rest, and then dump it all in the bin destined for landfill.
Next, you might don a pair of disposable plastic gloves to protect your hands from the floor and carpet cleaners that have scary-looking labels with more warnings on them than instructions, perhaps using antibacterial wipes to finish the job.
Then, a plastic scrubbing brush and cream cleanser might be used to have a go at that grout in the bathroom.
As for the laundry, perhaps that would go on a long, warm wash with a synthetic detergent poured from a large plastic bottle.
Why is all of the above damaging and unsustainable? Plastic packaging is one of the main offenders with it being neither renewable, readily biodegradable, nor easily recyclable (especially if it’s opaque and coloured rather than transparent/translucent), but there are more subtle ways in which your cleaning cupboard poses a threat to the future of the planet. Synthetic cleaning agents are often needlessly powerful and often in very low concentrations for consumer use, meaning most of their mass is water, which is fuel-intensive to ship. Furthermore, many of these substances - I hesitate to call them chemicals, as every substance is a chemical of some kind - are toxic to human health if ingested, even in small amounts, so you need to rinse them after use, consuming even more water. These enter the water system and non-biodegradable ones persist in the environment; these end up being consumed by marine life, which we then may consume if we’re that way inclined. You might be surprised to find out that whilst microbeads have been banned in cosmetics, they are still widely used in domestic cleaning products. An over-reliance on phosphates to boost other cleaning agents can lead to an overgrowth of algae (algal blooms) in water systems, causing oxygen depletion (‘eutrophication’) and destroying biodiversity, much like farming wastewater run-off with high concentrations of fertiliser. That plastic scrubbing brush and any disposable wipes you bought for the occasion aren’t likely to break down within the next thousand years or so, either.
‘What can you use instead that’s just as effective?’, I hear you say; fear not, for there are more alternatives arriving on the market every day, and some of them are already in your cupboard.
There are 4 main times of cleaning agents to consider:
detergents - water-soluble substances that make dirt/impurities more soluble. Synthetic ones made from non-renewable resources often aren’t biodegradable. So, look for products that contain plant-based ones like caprylyl glucoside, made from vegetable oils and glucose, rather than so-called ‘syndets’ (short for ‘synthetic detergents’);
degreasers - swap synthetic, non-renewable solvents for those from natural sources, like castile soap, or soapnuts;
abrasives - avoid microbeads by choosing sodium bicarbonate, table salt, natural sponges/loofahs and copper cloth, or even old toothbrushes* - acids - lemon juice and vinegar are the mainstay of many thrifty cleaners!
Along with making the substitutions above, thinking about how you buy your products (if at all) will make a difference; look for concentrated or powdered/solid products in sustainable, biodegradable packaging to avoid excess water being shipped. No-rinse products are preferable to save drinking water. If you’re in a house-share, you’re in luck, because sharing the cost by buying in bulk from brands that do refills is yet another way to cut down on plastic use.
This is just an introduction to sustainable cleaning, so you might be overwhelmed reading all of the above, but transitioning to more earth-kind methods is a gradual process - I’m in the process of taking one tip at a time and adding it to my repertoire. You might find that using more sustainable products changes your attitude to cleaning in general, making it more mindful, and…dare I say it…even pleasurable?
*but make sure to check the suitability of the agent for the surface you’re cleaning (abrasives can scratch off protective coatings, e.g. in non-stick frying pans)