Cleaning without polluting: an oxymoron?

By Peter Malaise

Most people understand cleaning as taking away the dirt. But that’s only a displacement of the problem: what then is “dirt”? That is very dependent on personal interpretation and women will have quite a different opinion on it than men (no jokes, please).

Looking for a definition which is as general as possible we could say: Dirt is matter on the wrong place. I’m eating toast with marmalade and a tiny piece drops on the floor, a second ago it was food, now it is “dirt”. But the substance, the matter of which it consists – toast and marmalade – has not significantly changed between my mouth and the floor. Only, according to our actual norms there shouldn’t be toast and marmalade on the floor, therefore it has to be removed and disposed off somewhere else where it can’t become a burden for a good hygiene.

What could then be cleaning? The displacement of dirt by means of a certain protocol and certain equipment – tools as well as products.

Cleaning requires a logical approach:

  • Defining the kind of dirt, its adherence to the support and the characteristics of that support
  • The choice of protocol, tools and products based on that knowledge
  • The awareness that cleaning doesn’t live in a bucket, but between our ears

Cleaning can be understood as an extension of man into his surroundings; and the same as with other actions the actual cleaning human puts an unreasonable stress on his natural environment and his fellow humans. One can think of the energy consumption of vacuum cleaners, water heaters and laundry machines, of the noise nuisance that machinery causes and of the amount of water and chemicals we put down the drain during cleaning. We pretend to maintain a high level of hygiene (fair enough, we still have to define what hygiene is exactly), but in most cases we just displace dirt in a thoughtless way and increase the non-hygiene in a different place, as a rule further away from where we live.

The question is if this can be called hygiene after all, and if it is sustainable. When we look at the lousy, unstable state of soil, water, air, warmth and radiation on this planet the answer must be: no. What we call hygiene today is not seriously considering elements of human health and environment, in spite of all kinds of rules and regulations (which are of course manipulated on a high level by people having a financial or other benefit).

It was regularly in the press lately: too much hygiene is an assault on our immune system. Several studies were able to document that we rather have a lack of healthy exposition. Just as we cannot train our muscles and keep them in a good shape by sitting on a chair, we can’t train our natural immunity by destroying any imaginable germ source around us with harsh actions.

At least we think that we destroy those germs, but we forget that they have far bigger skills in adapting themselves than us, humans. They come back in a stronger form, as resisting germs, making that at the moment there is hardly any antibiotic which is still effective. And with as a secondary consequence that we are at the same time killing the “good” bugs and undermining our immunity. Mice which have been bred in a sterile environment are susceptible to each and every disorder, whereas mice in an average environment (which we would call “dirty”), prosper. While cleaning we dump a lot of risk-bearing chemicals, alien to life processes, into the environment. Or what do you think that chlorine gas – bleach – does to our lungs? It was the first chemical weapon used in WW1. Documents on this war state: No gas is used to kill the enemy on the spot as a preparation for a new attack. The concentrations are rarely strong enough for a deadly effect. But chlorine bleach is still strong enough to generate professional illnesses with cleaning personnel, such as chlorine acne and respiration disturbances.

Cleaning in a household context should be a mix of well-conceived acts and carefully selected means to avoid being a burden on our health and the environment. A professional context or a hospital environment have higher requirements and request measured results, but basically have the same characteristics. A sustainable hygiene should aim at an equilibrium between cleanliness axed on human and ecological soundness, a visually satisfying tidiness and a cleaning frequency adapted to the intensity of use of the rooms, surfaces and objects.

It is therefore not a good idea to clean only because its Friday, in that case cleaning is degraded to become an obsessive-compulsive action, as it is called in the actual jargon. That has no relation any more to man and environment.

Neither does it make sense to scrub all the floors because it’s cleaning day. In many a case a hoovering and a removal of some stains will suffice – which makes a difference of 100-200 m2 less cleaning work. There are a lot of other surfaces in a home which are more important for a good hygiene, but which get far less attention.

Consider that the how is more important than the what with. The cleaning protocol – how do I do the cleaning – is much more important than which product or equipment I use. You’re not forced to dance to the piping of producers who want to sell you the 137th indispensable product, or the 311th gadget you’d need to fill the empty space underneath your sink.

Taking away dust is very important, as a lot of other matter gets trapped by it; it becomes a sticky film for unwanted germs. For furniture and vertical surfaces in the rooms you can use an absorbing dusting cloth, made clammy with water, without further addition. With young children at home you will have to add something though to take away sticky fingerprints (see below). Fold your cloth in four, such as to have eight faces (four on each side), each face allows you to treat about one m2. After eight m2 you rinse your cloth. Research has shown that making circles is not the most effective way; much better is to “write” tight strokes, from left to right and back. Wiping like that is also less of a burden to our body.

For floors, large furniture and big surfaces you need a good vacuum cleaner with a dust filter. A feather duster is a useless thing: it’s whirling dust all over the place. The only acceptable use is in combination with a vacuum cleaner to remove dust from out-of-reach spots .

In the kitchen and because of grease deposits you will need a simple all purpose cleaner, even a small percentage of hand dish wash, not more than two coffee spoons on half a litre of water. Using more doesn’t increase the cleaning performance, contrarily to what many people believe, that is only required for frying pan spills.

For lime scale deposits due to hard water, check under sanitary rooms below.

For the dishes you use a hand dish wash, but be careful: the stronger the degreasing effect, the worse for your skin. The same goes for hot water: warmer than 40°C is not necessary, the combination of detergent and hot water can in the long run cause persistent damage to your skin.

When you have mountains of foam, there’s something wrong: normally the product gets saturated in the process and foam should disappear. In the other case the product probably contains foam boosters. Foam is but trapped air, it doesn’t clean at all.

Rinsing with water is an absolute necessity, our digestion tract can’t deal with detergents.

For the automatic dish wash some tab will be the most suitable choice, but it will in any case be an environmental compromise.

In bathrooms and toilets you need an acid cleaner for the daily cleaning, and a lime scale remover for the intermittent descaling. Only when you’re so lucky to have soft water, such as rain water (less than 60 mg/L of lime), a lime scale remover is hardly ever needed. Be careful: do not use products with mineral acids (sulphuric, hydrochloric, phosphoric), they are far too powerful, not degradable and they leave stable leftovers.

Acetic acid (vinegar) is not bad on itself, but its efficiency is only 50% of that of citric or lactic acid, it has a strong smell and attacks rubber. Never touch copper, messing or bronze with acetic acid, it generates a poisonous compound (copper acetate), for the same reason you shouldn’t use it in coffee machines.

“Cleaning vinegar” is humbug, vinegar doesn’t clean at all, it just removes some lime scale.

For the bathroom and the kitchen an oxygen based (non-chlorine) bleach can be useful to take away bleachable stains. Choose a product based on sodium percarbonate (never mix that with an acid!), no other additives. This can be safely used on almost every support, also lime stone and granite, but not on aluminum because sodium percarbonate is alkaline.

For alkali sensitive supports such as aluminum you can use liquid hydrogen peroxide (never mix it with an alkali!), but not on lime stone (marble, bluestone, slate) because it’s slightly acid.

These oxygen bleaches – which, on a clean surface, also disinfect – are safe for humans and the environment, when you avoid eye contact and prolonged skin contact.

For the laundry (whites and colourfast) you can best use a concentrated washing powder with built-in oxygen bleach. Liquid laundry detergents need three to five times as much surfactants, the work horses of detergents, but at the same time these are the components which have the highest burden on health and environment.

For fine fabrics your best choice is a liquid without bleach; to remove bleachable stains you have then to add oxygen bleach yourself. For plant based fibres such as cotton, hemp and flax you take a sodium percarbonate bleach, for animal fibres such as wool and silk, an hydrogen peroxide based one.

For some types of stains a stain remover with enzymes comes in handy, it is to be applied on the stains after having them moistened with water. A little Sustainable Stain Guide:

  • For stains from oil/fat and protein you use undiluted liquid laundry or stain remover directly on the moistened stains
  • For bleachable stains (coffee, tea, wine, beer, grass, curry, tomato, …) you use a laundry powder with built-in oxygen bleach or you add oxygen bleach yourself
  • For coloured stains you have to find out first what exactly caused the stain; many coloured stains such as ballpoint, ink, tar or chain grease can only be removed when their carrier is removed with alcohol or another solvent
  • Many stains are not what they seem to be: chocolate is not a colour stain, but an oil/fat/protein one, containing some colourant; blood and faeces are not bleachable stains, but oil/fat protein ones.

Remember that the use of a detergent should always be in function of the type and the adhesion of dirt, the type of support and the usage intensity of the surfaces. As much as needed, not more, and when possible: no detergent.

About the choice of detergents:

  • Select products from a company that has a certain history in offering sustainable detergents. Throughout Europe there are largely twenty companies in that case.
  • Choose for products that consist mainly or solely of renewable ingredients and widely occurring minerals. Colourants are superfluous, fragrances can be a health risk for some users, even when they are from plant sources.
  • Don’t trust the average consumer organisation for the evaluation of detergents, they have too little knowledge on technical and sustainability issues. They mostly rely on a strong performance, or a superlative degree of whiteness and the likes, which are exactly at the origin of the problematique: these characteristics come hardly without the use of unacceptable chemistry.
  • Grandma’s soap, vinegar and soda will not be able to solve our problems either. Many of the actual supports didn’t exist in those days, neither did the actual dirt. Formica, acrylate, polyester, nylon and the likes can’t be cleaned properly with soap.
  • Read::The::Labels! All detergents have to mention some six ingredient categories on the labels (surfactants, sequestrants, bleaches, enzymes, colourants and fragrances). But the producers must also offer a full ingredient declaration of some form, in documentation or on a website. Not a luxury, as detergents may contain up to more than 20 components. As an average – especially with the big producers – this declaration is well hidden, or you have to identify yourself to get access to it. That is not legal.
  • Don’t get trapped by lofty declarations, abbey syrup nomenclature or beautifully green coloured scenery. The best detergent is no detergent, an environmentally friendly detergent exists as little as a finger friendly knife or a bug friendly insecticide.

It would be a real improvement when NGOs would take up the task to develop and spread information as the above among their members. Now that sustainable food is slowly becoming mainstream it is necessary to expand the attention to sustainable non-food commodities.