In this article we’re talking about cleaning house, literally. I’ve already published an article on Zero Waste Washing Up and Sustainable Ethical Laundry so this article only looks at house cleaning like the kitchen and bathroom etc.
Firstly we’re going to look at cleaning tools, then cleaning with 1) food-grade chemicals– either individually or combined in homemade cleaning products, 2) low-toxin cleaning products – some of which come as refills, and 3) concentrated cleaning products that reuse existing bottles – some of which are low-toxin. If you can’t find something in that mix then you’re a tough cookie to please.
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Review of Eco Cleaning Tools
You’ll be surprised just how few cleaning tool you need to clean your home. I have a mop & bucket, hoover, sweeping brush, dust pan, rags and old toothbrushes. That’s it.
I’ve seen loofahs sold as cleaning tools. I have to say I’m not a fan of them for anything other than a body scrub. Although compostable I find that they become soft too quickly making them little better than fabric cloths. Plus hairs get trapped in them very easily, which sort of grosses me out but if you’d like to try them Loof Co is one brand to check out.
I’ve also tried crocheted cloths made from cotton and jute but again they weren’t abrasive enough to work any better than fabric cloths. Instead I use dry bicarbonate of soda as an abrasive or a coconut fibre scourer (see above), which is also compostable at the end of it’s life.
A lot of what I own was bought pre-zero waste days and so it’s your bog standard badly-made nasty plastic stuff. It’d be wasteful for me to bin it just because it no longer fits with my values so I’ll just replace items as they wear out.
One tool that is on my to-buy list when my mop comes to the end of it’s life is a cuban mop. I saw this mentioned in one of the Zero Waste Facebook groups I’m in and it seems like a genius device to me. Simple and sustainable and stylish to boot if you like that sort of thing in your mop. Here’s a good article on the options and how to use them. Unfortunately they only seem to be available to buy on Amazon.
Best Brands for Eco Cleaning Tools
If you need to replace items here are some cleaning tool brands that I’ve bookmarked on my internet travels.
The Swedish brand Iris Hantwerk make a range of cleaning tools from sustainable grown timber, metal and / or natural fibres. From it’s foundation in the late 1900s every brush is made by hand by visually impaired craftsmen. This brand wont suit vegans as some of the fibres are animal hairs. You can buy their products from The Blue Door Direct and Hark Homegoods in Dublin, Cooking is Fun and Unbound in Cork, and Faerly.ie in Kildare.
German brand Redecker have been making brushes since 1935 from local German woods and natural materials such as goat hair, horsehair and plant fibres, so again not appropriate for vegans. The Blue Door Direct and Hark Homegoods in Dublin, Unbound in Cork and The Little Green Shop in Westmeath sell this brand.
Greener Cleaner make cleaning tools from recycled plastic, wood pulp and bamboo. The handles are either made from bamboo or from recycled plastic and wood pulp from sustainably grown trees and the bristles are made from recycled plastic, and all can be recycled or composted (bamboo) at the end of their life. The organisation 1% for the Planet certify that 1% of their sales go to protecting our oceans and in the UK they donate to Surfers Against Sewage. At the moment their products only seem to be available on their website and I couldn’t get a decent photo of them for this article.
Sri Lankan based Eco-coconut is probably the most prevalent brand of cleaning tool on sale in stores in Ireland. Apart from offering non-plastic tools made from coconut fibre there is very little information on the sustainability of their business model. All that I could find was the statement that they won Corporate Citizen for the best Corporate Sustainability Awards in Sri Lanka for 5 consecutive years.
Memo is a brand of cleaning products that you frequently see in eco stores in Ireland. I’ve bought their machine-washable compostable cleaning cloths before and they work quite well but loose their absorptive nature after about 6 months, so good as a wipe down cloth but not as a sponge after that. I didn’t believe that this cloths could be compostable but the company sent me a copy of the independent report that test them and sure enough, they disappear in 6 weeks when composted. The same company also make cleaning sponges from recycled plastic. I’ve bought them to try them and wasn’t keen but a friend liked them. I have an uneasy relationship with recycled plastic goods. Of course it is great to get more than one use from plastic before it’s landfilled but I’d prefer to see plastic recycled into something long lasting than a cleaning sponge. You can buy their products from Klee Paper / Ecoland
I’ve recently purchased a 2 pack of compostable sponges by Ecovibe for €5 in The Good Neighbour zero waste store in Dublin 14. These started really well and I loved them but after about 6 months they lost their absorbency, which I suppose isn’t bad. I’m still using them though, just not as sponges.
Find a supplier of Eco Cleaning Tools
In addition to the list of suppliers of named brands above. Here are some e-tailers of other eco cleaning equipment. For physical stores check out my map of eco-businesses.
- myecohub.com (Ireland – cleaning products & tools)
- littlegreenshop.ie (Ireland – cleaning tools)
- mycottondrawer.com (Ireland – cleaning tools)
- anniepooh.ie (Ireland – cleaning tools)
- Youme (Ireland – cleaning tools)
- kimgraygeneralstore.com (Ireland – cleaning tools)
- thenaturalstore.co.uk (UK – cleaning products)
- greentulip.co.uk (UK – cleaning tools)
- plainuseful.com (UK – cleaning products & tools)
- Manufactum (Germany)
Cleaning with Natural Ingredients
Apart from one product (see below for details) we’ve been using food-grade ingredients, like vinegar, bicarbonate of soda, lemon juice and water, to clean our house for the past 10 years now. It’s easy, it’s cheap, it’s low-toxin and it’s effective. Even the scientists agree, with studies reporting vinegar to be just as effective as commercial cleaning products at killing germs. If you want to find out what I use to clean what Check out my article on natural cleaning.
Even though I use the same ingredients that are used in homemade cleaning products I don’t actually combine them. I just use them as is and then wash off with water or vinegar. If you’d prefer to have pre-mixed household cleaners in your home you can find a ton of recipes for homemade cleaning products online. I like those by the American blogger Bren Did. She doesn’t just trot out the same old recipes I see on most blogs. She tests out a range of recipes before making a recommendation, which I like. The same blogger also has an excellent article on Green Cleaning Ingredients you should never mix. Not only does she lists the mixtures that would be dangerous, she also lists the ones that are ineffective and why, like mixing bicarbonate of soda with vinegar.
Another great spot for zero waste cleaning tips is the Irish vlogger Fairyland Cottage. She makes video all about low-waste and zero waste living, and although I don’t have a use for bleach in our house here’s a recipe for natural bleach that I came across in case you do. I haven’t tried it myself.
Some people aren’t a fan of the smell of vinegar. If you’re one of them youn you could swap vinegar for citric acid. It is a non-smelling acid that works just the same as vinegar. The website Moral Fibres has a good article on how to use citric acid to clean.
A lot of people interested in natural cleaning use essential oils to fragrance their homemade cleaning products, particularly citrus, but it’s worth noting that limonene which is naturally present in citrus fragrances converts to formaldehyde, a know carcinogen, when used indoors.
If you do use essential oils. Make sure you source your essential oil from a country of origin that doesn’t support animal testing. If you’re debating whether to invest in organic essential oils over non-organic just be aware that most ‘organic’ products aren’t 100% organic and may only need to a small percentage of organic ingredients in them to be allowed use the term on their label. So although I’m completely pro-organic, check the label to make sure you’re not being hoodwinked.
You’ll find a list of Irish and UK suppliers of essential oils in my article on toxin-free home fragrances
Best Eco Cleaning Brands
One of my main concerns with propriety cleaning products was my families exposure to toxins. A study published in the American Thoracic Society’s American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine stated that the use of cleaning products was equivalent to smoking 20 cigarettes a day in health terms. An extract of the study is available to view here.
From an planetary point of view propriety cleaning products don’t fare much better. I’m not a chemist or scientist so open to correction but it seems the legislation around cleaning products is weak and wishy-washy.
For example the language used in the 2009 EU report concerning the biodegradability of the main non-surfactant organic detergent ingredients didn’t give a lot of comfort with phrases like
– ‘may not pose risks for the environment’ and
– ‘the primary and secondary phases of waste water treatment are likely to result in the substantial removal of many of the ingredients of potential concern’
There also appears to be quite a few gaps in our knowledge of the impact of some of the chemicals in detergents with the report noting that.
– ‘there is insufficient data to comment on whether detergent dyes will be removed by waste water treatment’ further research is needed’.
– and in relation to phosphates ‘recommend a further assessment of long-term and secondary poisoning.
Also it would seem that a product only needs to achieve 60% biodegradability to be labelled as such, also the restriction on phosphates, which was acknowledged as being prone to degrade slowly and may present a risk to the environment in an EU report, doesn’t apply to washing-up liquid or cleaning products that clean dishwashers or washing machines themselves. (Source: AISE 2017 guide to the implementation of Detergent Legislation 2004.)
If you’re in the US Mamavation is an excellent source of information on toxin-free products and they’ve a great article on the chemicals to avoid in cleaning products. I’ve tried to source similar analysis from an EU point of view but have drawn a blank. As a shorthand here are the chemicals listed as being of concern in the Mamavation article;
- E.D.T.A. (Ethylenediaminetetraacetic Acid),
- Butylphenyl Methylpropional
- Synthetic Dyes,
- Synthetic Perfumes
- Sodium Dodecylbenzenesulfonate
- Benzyl Salicylate
- Alkyl Dimethyl Benzyl Ammonium Chlorides
- Copper Sulfate Pentahydrate
- Methyl Alcohol
- Titanium Dioxide.
Personally I don’t have the time to be checking cleaning products for these ingredients but if you’re attached to particular brands it may be worth your while doing so. In addition to particular ingredients here’s a
Things to look for in Cleaning Products
The term biodegradable
We typically expect this to mean that the ingredients break down completely in the environment once they enter wastewater treatment plants, rivers and streams or landfills but detergents only have to degrade by 60% within 28 days to qualify as biodegradable. (see paragraph above for source)
The term plant-based
Most people when they see this think the whole product is made from plant extracts whereas the reality is that the product many only contain the tiniest amount of plant-based ingredients.
The term organic
Most people think this term is used to describe something without chemicals but it may simply mean it’s made with plant-based ingredients, i.e. organic in the chemical sense. Even if the product claims to use ingredients grown without chemicals it may only be a small percentage of the total number of ingredients, and even then can’t be trusted unless certified by an independent organisation.
So after that illuminating, and quite frankly depressing, analysis of detergent legislation in Europe you really have to question the impact of the cleaning products for sale in Ireland. I would love to be able to say to you just buy X and you’ll be grand and I had drafted a paragraph to that effect, but I have to be realistic. I’m not a chemist and although there are brands of eco-cleaning products that I suspect might be more sustainable than others I really don’t have the credentials to stand over any recommendations at this point. So instead I’m going to list all of the ‘eco cleaning brands’ that I’ve come across with as much information as I can find and leave you to come to your own conclusion.
Ecoelite (Ireland) use 100% natural ingredients (zero man-made chemicals) in their products, and a gravity pull system that requires no energy for filling, boxing or labelling of the bottles. All products have been laboratory tested and are proven to kill bacteria, pathogens, mould and germs. You can buy their products from their website and it’s sometimes on special in Aldi stores.
Lily’s Eco (Ireland) tell me that their products are certified as being completed biodegradable and are free of phosphates, E.D.T.A. (Ethylenediaminetetraacetic Acid), Petroleum-derived Additives, Chemical Plasticisers, Formaldehyde, Glycerin or Glycerine, Lanolin, Sodium Tallowate, Synthetic Dyes, Synthetic Perfumes and Titanium Dioxide. Their products are also free of SLS, which is said to harm marine life. Instead they use the surfactants SLES or Sodium Laureth Sulfate (non ionic), Cocoamidopropyl Betaine (anionic) or Alkypolyglugoside – Lauryl Myristyl (amfoteric) in their ranges. I confirmed this information by email with the company owner because they don’t currently have it on their website. In addition to being available in standard size bottles and concentrated refill pouches in most supermarkets you can get package-free refills of their products in a lot of zero waste and health stores. Lilly’s Eco Toilet Cleaner is the only proprietary cleaning product we use, outside of washing up and laundry. I heard good reports about it so we gave it a whirl, and it does work!
Founded in 1902 Malones (Ireland) use only natural ingredients to make their cleaning products, which are on sale in some Supervalu, Tesco, Dunnes Stores and Woodies stores in Ireland. They are also patrons of the Asthma Society.
Bio D (UK) source all of the ingredients for their vegan plant-based products, which are made in the UK, from from reputable sources and have full trace-ability. They also list the ingredients in each product on their website. They are also a member of Sedex – the global organisation which drives improvements in ethical and responsible business practices – and are registered with ISO14001, which means they are recognised for ‘putting environmental management at the heart of what they do to achieve sustainable success.’ You can read a list of what they leave out of their products here. I’ve used some of their products and have found them to be very effective. Their products are typically available to buy in health stores.
Auro is a German company that makes paints and cleaning products based on organic and mineral raw materials, which they claim to be biodegradable. You can buy their cleaning products through Ecohub in Westmeath, who very helpfully lists the composition of each product on their website. You can also buy these products from Ecoland in D7.
Winnis is an brand made in Italy in a factory that use only plant-based ingredients, some of which are by-products of the food industry to make cleaning products. The company gets 80% of it’s energy from solar power with the remaining 20% coming from certified renewable sources. They also heat the factory from hot air generated from the manufacturing process. They also state that the perfume they use is low-allergy and 90% biodegradable. They offer a refill service in Italy and say that the highly concentrated nature of their products means that you need to use less, leading to less packaging. Some of their products come in recycled plastic packaging. Their products are available in some Dunnes Stores branches. We use their dishwasher tablets and find them great.
If you haven’t heard of the companies above you will most definitely have heard or seen Ecover, the most prevalent ‘eco’ cleaning brand in our supermarkets. Originally founded in the 1980s as a phosphate-free cleaning brand in America it is now available through out the world, either in a standard-size bottle to take home as refill stations in zero waste and health stores. They are now also providing plastic bottles made from recycled plastic and plant-based plastic, which they say can be downcycled into other products when empty. Ecover products contain some plant-based ingredients, which are sourced locally if possible, and are said to be biodegradable and suitable for use with septic tanks. Some of their products also contain RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) certified palm oil and palm kernel oil but they’re working to replace with alternatives and have started to use French-grown rapeseed oil in it’s Ecover Laundry Fabric Softener instead. This reduces their palm oil use by roughly 200 tons per year. Although not certified vegan the company says that their products contain no animal by-products and are not tested on animals. Their factory in Malle was made with over 90% recycled or renewable materials and is designed to minimise energy usage. Their cleaning system for the factory also reduces water use. Interestingly they report their global carbon emissions, which is admirable given it’s a whopping 74,434 metric tons, although most likely less than standard cleaning brands. A lot of people have moved away from Ecover (and Method, another US maker of biodegradable cleaning products) after it was bought over by SC Johnson, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of household cleaning products with brands that include Glade, Kiwi, Pledge, Windex, Raid and Tana.
If you can’t source these brands then the EWG guide to Healthy Cleaning is a useful resource and on their website you can search for the ‘health rating’ of branded products. It’s US based but includes a lot of brands we’d recognise.
Concentrated Cleaning Sachets
A novel idea in the world of eco cleaning involves concentrated capsules of cleaning products that you dilute in whatever existing bottle you have to hand. As with the brands above I can’t testify to the impact of their products from a health and environmental point of view. Most of the brands listed below talk more about the plastic bottles saved by using them, which is laudable, than the low-toxin nature of their products – except for Mangle and Wringer, which only uses food-grade ingredients.
Probably the best know company in this sphere is UK based Splosh. Their products are sent in pouches, which you can send back to them free of charge with a pre-paid sticky returns label. They return the pouches to one of their reprocessing partners for recycling into other products. Their products are are certified as not being tested on animals, their vegan and suitable for use with septic tanks. The company also states that they use plant derived ingredients where possible. You can view all of the ingredients in their products by visiting the bottle page for each product.
Iron & Velvet are UK based and up to 70% of their products being made up of natural ingredients. Their paper and cardboard packaging comes from FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified sources and their palm oil derived soap ingredient from an RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) certified supplier. A secondary soap they use is made from waste plant material left over from biofuel manufacture. They also deliver their sachets through the postal service in order to keep emissions from delivery to a minimum. They list all the ingredients used in their products on their FAQ page.
Green Qubes is a Northern Ireland based company selling dissolvable pods of cleaning products. Their products are certified as vegan by the vegan society and claim to be cruelty and plastic free. I could find no information on the ingredients in their products on their website, which is a breach of regulations as far as I’m aware. There is no information on packaging on the companies website but if you buy them via Pax Wholefoods they appear to come in a cardboard box.
Ocean Saver’s Pod. Their products are vegan, not tested on animals and certified as being biodegradable by the private company TUV Nord. Again, this company doesn’t disclose the ingredients in their products.
Another UK brand Mangle & Wringer sell cleaning products, some of which are concentrates, in glass bottles, pouches and aluminium tins. Unlike the other companies above this company only use food-grade ingredients in their products.
Neat in the UK also sells cleaning concentrates in bottles. They are working towards vegan certification, and say that their products are currently vegan. Their products are free of dye’s and pearlisers, but do contain fragrances. The ingredients are listed on the webpage of each cleaning product. You can buy from their website for from Irish retailer Anniepooh
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