Go Green! > Green Spring Cleaning

With the arrival of spring comes the annual ritual of cleaning out the cobwebs and chasing away the dust bunnies, making the inside of your home spotless and fresh. Unfortunately, many cleaning products can wreak havoc on our skin, eyes and lungs, as well as on the environment. Switching to natural cleaning products is an eco-friendly way to spruce up your home without unpleasant consequences.

“Doesn’t everybody feel good about using something that says ‘all-natural’?” asks Sue Ellen Cuff, an employee of Tuttle’s Red Barn in Dover, which sells the Mrs. Meyers line of cleaning products. “People are much more concerned about what they are putting back into the environment, especially with the cleaning products that they are washing down the drain.”

What’s in a Cleaner?

Most people are unaware of the ingredients that make up the cleaning products they use, according to Martin H. Wolf, director of product and environmental technology for Seventh Generation, Inc., a leading manufacturer of natural cleaning products. In fact, one of the leading elements of conventional cleaners is petroleum; it is used to produce a number of ingredients, including surfactants. “Surfactants allow oils and dirt to be suspended in water,” explains Wolf. Instead of petroleum, “Our products use coconut oil, soybean oil or cornstarch to produce surfactants.”

Another ingredient commonly found in all-purpose cleaners, laundry detergent and automatic dishwashing soap is phosphate, which removes hard-water minerals and prevents dirt from getting back onto the water during washing. Although phosphates are found in nature, when large amounts of them enter the water system, they create a condition known as eutrophication (the large algae blooms that are common to many waterways). Eutrophication depletes the oxygen levels in the water, which in turn kills fish and other living creatures en mass.

Many states, including New Hampshire, instituted phosphate bans for laundry detergents in the 1990s, causing manufacturers to abandon the ingredient in their formulas. Now, states are looking to ban phosphates in dishwashing soap. So far, Maryland, Vermont, Minnesota, Illinois and Washington state have passed bans, and Massachusetts and Michigan are not far behind. Manufacturers have until January 1, 2010, to develop phosphate- free dishwashing soaps for sale in these states.

Unlike most conventional cleaning products, most all-natural cleaners list their ingredients. “You can’t evaluate a product without an ingredient list,” says Wolf. “We disclose every ingredient, either on the package or on our Web site.”

In addition, natural cleaning products are biodegradable. “They break down in the environment, so you know they aren’t going to persist for years to come,” says Nick Schneider, from the Concord Cooperative Market, which sells Seventh Generation and Ecover products.

Environmentally friendly ways to clean

There are two ways to clean all-naturally. One is to make your own cleaning products. For a window cleaner, mix equal amounts of water and vinegar in a spray bottle. Add a little biodegradable liquid soap, and it becomes an all-purpose cleaner. Baking soda can be used to clean the bathroom, carpet, oven and cookware.

Consumers can also buy all-natural cleaning products from many supermarkets, chain retailers or natural products stores. According to Spins, a market research and data company, sales of these products increased 19 percent from 2002 to 2003, which amounts to $36.2 million in sales.

The upside of natural cleaning products

“There are two major benefits [to natural cleaning products],” says Wolf. “One, the product is gentler on the earth to both make and use, and [two,] the products take human health into consideration.”

Seventh Generation is currently involved in a pilot program in its hometown of Burlington, Vermont, where the Marriott Hotel has switched its cleaning products to the Seventh Generation line. Wolf says the housekeeping staff is experiencing less skin and respiratory irritation.

Schneider notes that, while these cleaners are nontoxic, some of the natural elements can be quite strong if they are ingested, or come in contact with skin or eyes. It is important to read the label and use as directed to avoid any problems. “The label also gives you advice on how to use the product more effectively,” Schneider adds.

Perhaps the biggest myth about natural cleaning produces is that they don’t work as well as their conventional counterparts. “We test our products against the leading conventional brands,” says Wolf. “We know we are going to be on the shelf at a premium price, so we want them to clean like a premium product.”

“People expect that they are going to sacrifice with these products,” says Meredith Gonzales, owner of Your Home, Your World in Concord. “However, they only notice they don’t smell as bad.”

This spring, buying natural cleaning products is a good way to become eco-friendly. “It seems like such an insignificant thing,” says Schneider, “but if everyone does it, it makes a huge difference.”