Perfection is an impossible standard, and that’s true of cleaning products as much as it is for everything else. And yet, it’s so tempting to try to figure out what an ideal eco-friendly cleaner would look like. Experts caution against going down that path. The concept of ideal in and of itself is subjective, but add to that words like sustainable or eco-friendly, and you are already so far down the rabbit hole you can practically taste the organic EAT ME cake.
But as people prepare to reacquaint themselves with outside germs and bring more of them back into their homes, it feels fair to at least ask how someone might keep their home clean while maintaining an environmental awareness. What would the ideal eco-friendly cleaning product look like?
There are many stages in the lifecycle of a cleaning product, and each stage offers new opportunities for interaction with the environment. With expert insight along the way, let’s break down the ideal eco-friendly cleaning product supply chain.
In all healthful relationships, open and honest communication up front reduces the risk of heartbreak down the line. This is true even in the case of the relationship between a cleaning product company and its consumers.
In fact, Brian Sansoni, Senior Vice President of Communications, Outreach & Membership at the American Cleaning Institute — a 95-year-old trade association for the cleaning products supply chain — listed “increasing transparency” as the first of four priorities in the industry’s sustainability efforts. (It was followed by “reducing emissions, valuing nature, and contributing positively in support of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.”)
To be honest, I found this goal to be a little nefarious — what does transparency have to do with the environment? — and it turns out, it kind of is.
In 2017, the California state legislature passed the Cleaning Product Right to Know Act, a state law co-sponsored by the Environmental Working Group that requires companies to list known hazardous chemicals in cleaning products on the labels and online. “We were really pushing with the bill to get companies to disclose what was in there, but we see that when companies have to disclose, they tend to want to reformulate rather than disclose some of those nasty ingredients that might be lurking in the formula,” EWG’s Senior Research and Database Analyst Samara Geller tells Apartment Therapy.
The result of this mandated transparency is safer, cleaner formulations. Fortunately, the impact of this law is felt beyond California, as it wouldn’t be entirely practical for (inter)national companies to produce unique formulations and labels for individual states.
So, although transparency isn’t inherent to sustainability — a company can be eco-conscious and tell no one, and they’d still be eco-conscious — transparency encourages sustainability. If a company isn’t hiding anything, then they have nothing to hide.
Stage 2: Safe, Effective Ingredients
In considering the makeup of a sustainable cleaning product, it’s important that it is two things: (1) effective and (2) safe for people and the environment.
Efficacy is top of mind because if a cleaning product doesn’t clean, then the fact that it is being produced and distributed at all makes it bad for the environment. All energy and resources that go into creating an ineffective product are wasted, and waste is generally not eco-friendly.
However, for day-to-day purposes, a disinfectant isn’t always necessary. “Bacteria doesn’t grow on clean surfaces, and cleaning with an effective soap and possibly a scouring powder is sufficient to keep the household clean and healthy, just like a proper hand washing is sufficient to keep us germ-free,” AspenClean president Alicia Sokolowski tells Apartment Therapy. AspenClean’s cleaning products were the first to earn EWG Verified certification, a process which corroborates both the effectiveness and environmental safety of a product.
They’re not necessarily bad words, but without additional context, they’re empty. “Certain chemicals that you don’t understand might seem bad at first, but if they’re synthetically made in a safe way and in safe working conditions, then it’s probably not that bad, so you have to go one level deeper than just the name,” Lizzie Horvitz, founder and CEO of product sustainability assessment platform Finch, tells Apartment Therapy.
In addition to where the ingredient comes from, it’s worth considering where it’s going. After use, whether rinsing down the drain or throwing in the garbage, a cleaning product will cycle through the ecosystem, introducing a secondary host of environmental concerns that can eventually come back to humans.
“A lot of times things are found in the aquatic environment that magnify up the food chain,” Geller explains, “So it might not necessarily be hazardous at that acute level for a human being, but if it makes its way into the food chain, oftentimes we don’t know what the impact is going to be on humans.” (An example of an ingredient entering the food chain would be microplastics, which are largely banned in cosmetics but still appear in some cleaning products and have been found in aquatic populations.)
Barring memorizing extensive lists of acceptable and hazardous compounds, the easiest thing to do to determine a cleaning product’s environmental safety is look for science-backed claims and third-party certifications like Green Seal, Ecologo, or Safer Choice. (Although it’s worth mentioning certifications are like transparency: a product can still be planet- and people-friendly without it. Plus they often cost money to get, which might not be feasible for some small businesses.) Or, let someone else do the work for you: EWG’s app breaks down the safety of individual products on the go, and Finch‘s browser extension (currently available via a waitlist) provides additional insights throughout a product’s lifecycle.
Stage 3: Responsible Packaging
Sustainable packaging is a huge trend in the cleaning product space right now. Companies that offer refillable bottles with concentrated cleaning pods are leading the charge — effectively employing two of the three R’s by reducing the number of total bottles produced while individuals reuse the packaging. The impact of this is felt across the supply chain, with less energy spent in the manufacture and transport stages.
The goal of refillable cleaning products is, as Blueland CEO and co-founder Sarah Paiji Yoo says, “to eliminate single-use plastic packaging and help create a more sustainable planet for ourselves and future generations.” The company bolsters their eco-friendly mission with recyclable shipping materials and compostable refill tablet wrappers.
Single-use plastic is, unequivocally, bad for the environment. Multi-use plastic, on the other hand, is a lot less bad. If designed well, it can be a one-time emission fee for a lifetime of use with benefits that recycling can’t offer. “With recycling, you first have to assume that these end consumers are doing the right thing by putting their products in the recycling bin, which is a pretty big assumption to make,” Horvitz says. “But even if that happens, there are then at least seven steps to go through to make sure that that product has a second life. And you just don’t have control over that.”
Gaining control over post-consumer packaging is a priority for ACI member companies. “Our ambition for our industry is for all cleaning product packaging to be circular,” Sansoni says, with aims to develop systems of recovery and recycling that eliminate cleaning product packaging waste by 2040. Circular packaging is a system in which packaging is able to be reused in perpetuity by taking a 360-degree approach that includes everything from exclusively using non-virgin or compostable packaging materials to taking responsibility in the post-consumer phase by implementing bottle return programs or collecting ocean-bound plastic.
While some large companies are releasing refillable concentrates, when it comes to mass-distributed disinfectants, circular packaging might be the safest route. (Remember: there are legalities behind disinfecting and sanitizing claims on packaging.) Companies include crucial safety information on their packaging — for example, what to do in the event of ingestion or contact with the eyes — and if a consumer refills their bottle with a different product, there can be severe consequences.
A side benefit of larger companies investing in circular packaging rather than focusing solely on refillable concentrates is that many ACI member companies produce more than just cleaning products, so the implementation of circular packaging could impact many industries at once.
For now, refillable packaging rules, but there are exciting developments in the works from companies investing in circular packaging.
Greenhouse gas emissions are overwhelming our planet and are largely to blame for the climate crisis. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 23 percent of overall greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. in 2019 came from industry and 29 percent came from transportation. (For comparison, 13 percent of emissions were attributed to the commercial and residential sector, which includes all of our daily household emissions.) The way companies manufacture and transport goods can have a huge impact on our overall greenhouse gas emissions.
Of course, these numbers include more than just the cleaning product industry’s manufacture and transport of goods, but the cleaning product industry does contribute to those numbers, so when considering a cleaning product’s impact — or any product’s impact — it’s important to consider the energy behind the product’s journey.
For larger cleaning product companies, the path to lowering emissions is slow and steady. According to ACI’s 2019 Sustainability Report, since 2008 (the year the institute started tracking these numbers), product formulators have reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 37 percent and have increased renewable energy usage by 19 percent.
“A real challenge [for member companies] is working with their partners across the supply chain to reduce the upstream emissions,” Sansoni says. Many cleaning product companies — especially those with large operations — will work with various third-party businesses throughout the supply chain: Company A might manufacture an all purpose spray and bottle it in containers made by Company B, and then Company C might take over the transportation from factory to warehouse to stores. Getting an accurate understanding of a product’s total emissions depends on all involved companies working together to create goals and commit to reducing impact at all stages. In fact, according to research from Smeal College of Business professors Verónica H. Villena and Dennis A. Gioia and published by Harvard Business Review, a complete top-down approach to reducing emissions is crucial to developing a more environmentally sustainable supply chain across all industries.
The cleaning industry at large is aiming to reach net zero emissions by 2050, Sansoni adds. For now, 15 member companies are piloting that path. In the meantime, some smaller cleaning product companies, like Blueland, are already Climate Neutral Certified by working with their manufacturers and transporters to reduce consumption, track waste, and offset any remaining emissions.
Stage 5: Marketing and the Sustainability Spectrum
Words like “green,” “natural,” and even “sustainable” have become increasingly vague as eco-friendly options moved from fringe communities into the mainstream. The growing public awareness around environmental concerns is good — but the ambiguity around the language can be confusing and misleading.
To help clarify a product’s impact, Azora Zoe Paknad suggests viewing sustainability as a spectrum. She employs this methodology on her ecommerce site Goldune, a company that curates and sells sustainable everyday products.
“[The sustainability spectrum] gives you more of a sense of how much room there is for this product or this supply chain or this category to grow and why we pick it as maybe the best option we could find versus, ‘This is good/this is bad,’” Paknad tells Apartment Therapy. “I think that also allows us to have a little more wiggle room to talk about things like environmental racism.” Companies taking responsibility for their own pollution is great — and creating consciously in addition to cleaning up other companies’ residual environmental messes (both physical and systemic) in disproportionately impacted low income communities is even better.
Ultimately, the goal is to reject fear- and shame-based marketing tactics and encourage an uplifting, accessible, and environmentally conscious shopping experience.
With the varying environmental priorities across the cleaning product industry, viewing individual products on a sustainability spectrum could come in handy. Ultimately, there is no absolute ideal eco cleaning product, and there can never be one because the way we understand our place in nature is constantly evolving, and so our ideals will evolve with it.
But as long as you’re wholly considering the cleaning products you use — or really, any product you use — and prioritizing sustainability in the ways that feel accessible to you, you’re taking steps toward a more eco-friendly home. Whatever that looks like inside your home, that’s what’s ideal.
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If the pandemic brought to mind questions about how to properly clean and sanitize your laundry, you’re not alone. Due to an increase in consumer questions related to best laundry practices over the past year, the American Cleaning Institute (ACI) recently released a guide about the best laundry care for better overall household health. The guide outlines three “levels” of laundry you can implement — each with a different degree of care depending on the current wellness status of your home.
“There’s routine everyday cleaning and then there are the extra steps and enhanced precautions you should be taking when a family member is sick or has a weakened immune system,” reads ACI’s website. “We relied on laundry safety experts to determine what precautions were recommended when and created a three-level laundry guide for best laundry practices for better health. Know the Levels of Laundry and how to step up your laundry routine, when needed, to help care for you and your family.”
Here are the three levels of laundry that you should know, according to ACI.
This level should be your method when everyone in your household is healthy. At “low” status, you can do laundry as you normally would and wait until a convenient laundry day to wash things. Use detergent and wash and dry at any temperature (and yes, that includes cold). “Most of the time, a healthy household is low risk and can do the laundry as usual and wash in cold water,” says ACI.
Additionally, you can boost this level of laundry by adding laundry sanitizer like Lysol Laundry Sanitizer or any EPA registered laundry sanitizer to your wash load. Laundry sanitizer will combat odor-causing bacteria, and it can be helpful depending on your family’s activity level and how much the clothing is soiled. To find out if a product is EPA registered (meaning it will kill coronavirus when used according to the label directions), you can use List N Tool: COVID-19 Disinfectants on the EPA’s website.
And don’t forget to wash your hands after handling soiled laundry (on any level).
You and your loved ones should follow the medium level laundry instructions whenever a member of the household has a respiratory illness (such as COVID-19, the flu, and colds). “Medium” laundry (along with the high level of laundry) should always be handled and washed as soon as possible. Use a deeper cleaning detergent like Tide Hygienic Clean Power Pods and wash and dry on a warm setting. At this level, it’s OK to wash the laundry of the person who is sick with other people’s items. And of course, you can still add an EPA registered laundry sanitizer or even bleach to your load, as you would at the low level. Make sure, however, to wear gloves when handling the soiled clothing and don’t shake your items too much — it could transfer germs from dirty to clean clothing. After you wash, remember to disinfect any surfaces where dirty laundry has been, and then wash your hands to prevent the spread of the illness.
High: Enhanced Precautions
If there are members of your household with enteric infections (i.e. vomiting and diarrhea), who have weakened immune systems, or have returned from work with potentially contaminated clothes, your laundry should be washed with high-level care. Like the medium level, you should launder with a deeper-cleaning detergent, but using an EPA registered laundry sanitizer or bleach is not optional. The sick person’s clothing should also be separated from those of other family members, washed and dried on hot, and handled with gloves. Again, don’t shake the clothes, and afterwards wash hands and disinfect all surfaces that the soiled items came in contact with. Additionally, check your washing machine for a sanitizing cycle. Some machines have them, and it can help add an extra line of defense.
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The beloved all-purpose cleaner Bar Keepers Friend can work to remove a variety of tough-to-tackle stains, from rust to mineral deposits and baked-on food. And don’t let the name fool you: BKF can be put to work in places other than a kitchen setting, including bathrooms, garages, and backyards.
There are, however, certain surfaces in each of those spaces that the cleaner is not so friendly with. Here are six things that you should never clean with Bar Keepers Friend:
1. Don’t use BKF on polished stone such as marble or granite
Uh-oh! You just noticed food grime lurking on your marble or granite countertops. Before you break out Bar Keepers Friend, make sure it’s the right formula. “You should never use Bar Keepers Friend on your granite or marble countertops, as it will leave corrosive marks that will be impossible to ignore once done,” explained Jessica Randhawa, the head chef, recipe creator, photographer, and writer behind The Forked Spoon. Randhawa uses Bar Keepers Friend regularly on all of her stainless steel pots and pans, for hard water stains in her toilets, and hard water stains on her glass shower doors.
If you do want to harness BKF’s reputation on your stone surfaces, the BKF family of products includes a Granite & Stone Cleaner & Polish, which is made specifically for granite and polished stone such as quartz countertops. It should be noted that BKF Granite & Stone Cleaner & Polish should only be used on polished stone. It is not suitable for butcher blocks, painted or lacquered surfaces, brick, slate, or grout.
2. Don’t use BKF on concrete, wood, or any other porous surface
Bar Keepers Friend is formulated to work on non-porous surfaces like glass, stainless steel, ceramic, porcelain, brass, and aluminum. But when it comes to porous surfaces — like unsealed concrete, fabric, leather, or wood — the manufacturers recommend steering clear. What classifies a porous surface? Think in terms of pores. A porous surface will allow liquids like water, to pass through or become absorbed by it. So you can clean your dutch oven with BKF, but stick with dish soap for your wooden cutting board.
3. Don’t use BKF on appliances with protective layers
To help repel fingerprints, many manufacturers apply a clear protective layer to the appliances they produce — that’s the “stainless” part of your stainless steel fridge. BKF may harm that layer due to its mineral abrasive ingredient. Instead, use Bar Keepers Friend’s specialized Stainless Steel Cleaner & Polish.
4. Don’t use BKF on lacquered, painted, mirrored surfaces, or colored grout
5. Don’t use BKF on surfaces that can’t be rinsed well
The process of using Bar Keepers Friend looks like this: wet the surface you intend to clean. Sprinkle the cleanser onto the surface. Gently run with a wet cloth or sponge. Rinse thoroughly and wipe dry. The thorough rinsing is an important step when using BKF, and therefore it should not be used in areas that cannot be easily rinsed, such as non-drained, enclosed spaces like an oven or microwave interior.
6. Don’t use BKF on gold or silver
Keep Bar Keepers Friend away from your precious metals. “Bar Keepers Friend will ruin other materials that it was not engineered to clean, such as gold or silver jewelry,” says Randhawa. “But it’s perfectly safe to use on sterling silver flatware.”
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For most of my adult life, getting comfortable in the kitchen has been… a process. It took me years to accept that, yes, for me, following set recipes is the only way to properly learn how to cook things well, and yes, having a decent set of knives will make a big difference.
Still, there are kitchen “rules” that have always confused me — or eluded me entirely. For example, I still don’t entirely align with the idea that I’ll get violently ill if I eat raw cookie dough, despite the fact that my mom told me this for most of my childhood and that it is, in fact, pretty unsafe, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
As recently as my mid-20s I can remember having arguments with peers about the proper way to treat raw meat before cooking it. “What do you mean you don’t rinse off raw chicken before cooking it?” a colleague asked me, their face awash with shock. Was this a thing people did? I found myself asking. Had I been poisoning myself all these years by not rinsing it off? A quick Google told me that actually, rinsing off raw meat is potentially dangerous — it spreads bacteria to the sink and counters, according to the FDA. Still, it’s a common kitchen habit of many people, which emphasizes the fact that just because you’ve been doing something for years in the kitchen without problem doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe. When it comes to cleaning and cooking in the kitchen, there’s personal preference and then there’s safety.
Worried your kitchen habits are unsafe? Here are some things you should never, ever do in your kitchen:
Using the Same Sponge to Wipe Down the Counters and the Dishes
I spoke to Mareya Ibrahim, a chef and natural products industry expert, about what habits people should avoid in the kitchen to stay safe, and this tip is the first thing she mentioned. When you use the same sponge to wipe down counters or cutting boards that you use on clean dishes or hands you are potentially cross-contaminating your surfaces with bacteria. When it comes to cleaning up germ-infested spills — like raw meat juice — the safest thing is to use a paper towel or just soap and running water, if possible. If it’s not, opt for a washable rag that you can sanitize in the laundry after use. To keep things as safe as possible, the Food and Drug Administration also suggests using separate cooking tools and instruments for raw food.
Cleaning Produce in a Dirty Sink
It may seem counterintuitive, but your sink is not a clean place. As microbiologist Dr. Charles Gerba shared with Food & Wine: “There’s more E. coli in a kitchen sink than in a toilet after you flush it.” Pretty gross, right? Needless to say, if you’ve been placing produce directly into your kitchen sink to wash it off, you should stop. Instead, opt for washing produce inside a colander that you can more effectively clean and sanitize between uses.
Forgetting to Wash Your Hands Every Time You Touch Raw Meat
As the FDA points out, you should be washing your hands after every single instance of touching red meat — no matter how brief. That means 20 seconds under warm, soapy water. No exceptions. And for reference, that’s actually the equivalent of singing the “Happy Birthday” song twice through.