Every year, the big detergent manufacturers come up with dozens of new ideas for keeping homes sparkling clean and free from bacteria, from germ-busting sprays to disposable mops. Ignore the hype and keep things simple: one multi-surface cleaner will suffice for nearly all household tasks, including kitchens and bathrooms alike. Cutting down the use of chemicals in the home is the first step towards reducing their impact on the environment.
Household cleaners are formulated from a wide range of ingredients, and almost always contain surfactants (detergents) which help to remove dirt and grease and allow them to disperse in water. Natural surfactants can be derived from vegetable substances, but many big brands continue to use petroleum derivatives such as the much-criticised sodium lauryl sulphate.
Petroleum-based surfactants are derived from a non-renewable resource and often biodegrade more slowly and less completely than those produced from vegetables. During the degradation process, they can form compounds that are even more dangerous than the original chemicals themselves.
European countries, including the UK, have been discussing a strategy that would enforce people’s right to know about all the chemicals present in cleaning products. At the moment, manufacturers of household detergents can continue to use toxic and potentially toxic chemicals in their products.
A general claim of ‘biodegradable’ on the labels of many products is misleading, because all such products are biodegradable; the question is how readily the elements biodegrade. There is a big difference between products breaking down entirely in hours or days, rather than partially over months or years. Read the label carefully: terms such as ‘surface active agents’, ‘cleaning agents’, ‘soil suspending agents’, ‘grease cutters’ and ‘grease removers’ are often just clever names for petroleum-based surfactants.
A regrettable side-effect of companies’ quest to find different products to do what is essentially the same job (cleaning a surface) has been an increase in animal testing. However, you can search the BUAV’s www.gocrueltyfree.org website for a list of companies which carry their Leaping Bunny logo – a guarantee that a product is totally free of animal testing.
More and more cleaners are now being marketed as being ‘especially formulated’ for the bathroom or kitchen sink, when in reality there is very little difference between the cleaning requirements of the two areas.
Cutting down on bleach
Greater quantities of bleach and detergent are discharged directly into sewers from domestic premises than from the factories making them. Several types of bleach exist, all of which act by oxidising, and thus sterilising, organic matter. This powerful antibacterial effect has been seen to persist beyond the u-bend, undermining the bacterial action that helps break down sewage. For this reason bleach should be used in diluted form, if at all, and should never be poured neat down drains. Neither Ecover nor Bio-D produce household bleach, because they believe the action is unnecessarily powerful. Their toilet cleaners rely on acids which dislodge waste rather than sterilise it.
Another reason for not using bleach is the danger it poses to humans. When chlorine-based bleaches are mixed with ammonia they release dangerous chlorine gas. An estimated 6,000 infant and toddler accidents are attributed to household cleaners each year.
Water and packaging
The most common ingredient (up to 90 per cent) of general-purpose cleaners is water. When this excess water is transported, energy and packaging is wasted and more solid waste is created for our landfills. Concentrated products in smaller bottles are a better option.
Cleaning product bottles are usually made from plastic. Greenpeace urges individuals to make a conscious effort not to buy things in polyvinylchloride (PVC) containers. There is usually a symbol on the bottom of the bottle indicating the type of plastic: PVC is indicated by a ‘3’ in a recycling symbol. High and low density polyethylene (HDPE and LDPE), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene (PE) and polyethylene tetraphthalate (PET) all have fewer environmental problems associated with their manufacture and disposal than PVC.
Ethical Cleaners Rankings Detailed Table
Buy our detailed Ethical Research Reports. See the findings behind companies’ ethical ratings, as featured in The Good Shopping Guide. Several different product sectors available covering hundreds of consumer brands.
We have created ethical rankings for the following brands, based on the activities of the company group (see above tables): Bio D, Ecover, Orange Plus, Astonish, 1001, Jeyes Fluid, Dettol, Mr. Muscle, Ajax, Stardrops, Cif, Flash
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