Cleaning without polluting, an oxymoron?

By Peter Malaise

Cleaning is understood by most people as removing dirt. But with that we only moved the problem: what is “dirty”? That is very dependent on personal interpretation and women will judge it very differently from men (no, no jokes please).

If we look for a characterization that is as general as possible, we can say for example: Dirt is matter in the wrong place. I eat a slice of bread with jam and a piece falls on the floor, just now it was still food, now it is “dirty”. But the substance, the material in question – in this case bread and jam – has not changed substantially from my mouth to the ground. According to our current standards, there should not be any bread with jam on the floor, so it must be removed and placed somewhere where it cannot become a risk for good hygiene.

What is cleaning then? Moving dirt through certain actions and certain aids – tools as well as products.

Cleaning requires a logical approach:

• Determining the nature of the contamination, its adhesion and the type of support on which it is located

• The choice of actions and aids in function thereof

• The fact that cleaning is not in a bucket or in a machine, but between the ears.

Like other operations, cleaning is a functional extension of man; and as with other human actions, actual cleaning practices put an unreasonable pressure on his natural environment and his fellow humans. Just think of the power consumption of vacuum cleaners, water heaters, dishwashing and washing machines, the noise pollution caused by appliances and the amount and nature of the chemicals that we discharge during cleaning. We do claim to maintain a high level of hygiene (we must first define what hygiene is), but in the majority of cases we only move dirt in a thoughtless manner and we increase dis-hygiene in other places, further from our immediate living environment.

The question is whether such action can justifiably be called hygiene, and whether it is sustainable. If we look at the critical, imbalanced state of soil, water, air, heat and radiation on this planet, the answer is: no. What we call hygiene today takes far too little account of environmental and health factors, in spite of all sorts of rules and legislation (which of course are manipulated at a high level by those who benefit financially or otherwise).

It has been in the press many times: too much hygiene is an attack on our immunity. Various studies were able to show that we have – and certainly in children – a lack of healthy exposure. Just as we cannot exercise and maintain our muscles by sitting on a chair, we cannot exercise and maintain our natural immunity by destroying every conceivable source of potentially pathogenic germs around us with gross means.

At least we think we are destroying those germs, but we forget that they have much more adaptability than we humans do. They come back in a reinforced form, like resistant germs, which ensure that no antibiotic is currently effective. And with the result that we also destroy the “good” germs and undermine our immune system. Mice that are grown in a sterile environment are susceptible to all possible disorders, while mice in a normal environment (which we would call “dirty”) thrive well and healthily. We leave behind a lot of life-threatening, stressful substances in our body and our environment. Or what did you think chlorine – bleach – does in our lungs? It was the first gaseous weapon used in WW1. There has been written: No gas is used to instantly kill the opponent in preparation for a new attack. The concentrations are rarely strong enough for a lethal effect. Chlorine gas is strong enough to cause you to die a slow and painful death. And to cause occupational diseases, such as chloracne or respiratory disorders, among cleaning staff.

Cleaning in a household environment should therefore be a deliberate series of actions with selectively chosen aids if it is not to infringe on our health and the environment. A professional or hospital environment makes measurably higher demands on the result, but essentially has the same characteristics. Sustainable hygiene must be aimed at maintaining a balance between health and environmental cleanliness, a visually satisfactory result, and a cleaning frequency that is adjusted to the intensity of use of the rooms, surfaces and objects.

It is therefore not useful to clean because it is Friday, then cleaning becomes a compulsive act (an obsessive-compulsive disorder as it is called in today’s jargon) that no longer has anything to do with people and their environment.

Nor does it make sense for all floors to be wiped because it is cleaning day. Perhaps a vacuum cleaning is sufficient, and removing a stain here and there, which may save 100-200 m2 of cleaning work in an average home. There are many areas in a home that are more important for good hygiene than floors, but that receive much less or no attention. What do you think about banisters, door handles and the telephone receiver?

Remember that the “how” is more important than the “what”. The cleaning procedure – how do I handle cleaning – is much more important than with which product or tool it is done. You are not obliged to dance to the tune of producers who offer you the 137th absolutely indispensable product, or the 311st gadget that you cannot miss to fill the empty space under your sink.

The removal of dust is important because all sorts of other substances will attach itself to that dust; it then becomes a breeding ground for unwanted germs. With regard to furniture and vertical surfaces in the living areas, you need only a clammy, absorbent duster, nothing else. If you have small children at home you will of course have to add something to remove sticky finger prints (see below).

Fold your cleaning cloth in four, then you have eight surfaces (four on each side), with each surface you can dust one square meter. After eight square meters you rinse your cleaning cloth. Research has shown that turning circles does not give the best results; the “writing” of closely connected “w’s”, from left to right shows up to be the least burdensome and tiring for our locomotor apparatus.

For the floors, large pieces of furniture and large surfaces, a solid vacuum cleaner with fine dust filter. The notorious and very Belgian feather duster is an odd thing: it just swirls the dust up. It is best to use it in combination with the vacuum cleaner or as an attachment to remove the dust from hard-to-reach places.

In the kitchen, because of fatty deposits, you do need a simple all-purpose cleaner; possibly a small amount of washing-up detergent, no more than two coffee spoons per litre. Using more does not clean better, that is a misconception; You should only do that for i.e. a frying pan.

If you get limescale due to hard water, look below at sanitary rooms.

You use a detergent for hand dishwashing, but remember that the stronger the product degreases, the worse it is for your hands. The same applies to hot water: warmer than 40 ° is not required and the combination of detergent and hot water can eventually damage your skin permanently.

If you get a lot of foam, that is suspicious: the detergent normally becomes saturated during doing the dishes and the foam should gradually disappear. In the other case there are probably foam boosters in the product. Foam is only trapped air, it does not clean at all.

Rinsing the dishes with clean water after washing them is absolutely necessary, our stomach and intestines cannot handle detergent.

For the dishwasher, the safest choice is a tab, even when it is still a compromise for the time being.

In sanitary rooms you need a weak acid cleaner for frequent cleaning, and a strong acid descaler for periodic lime removal. Only if you have soft water such as rain water (less than 1.7 mg/L of calcium, check your water invoice), a descaler is rarely necessary. Attention: do not choose products with mineral acids (sulphuric acid, hydrochloric acid, phosphoric acid, nitric acid), they are way too strong, not degradable and leave stable residues behind. Lactic acid or citric acid do the same job a bit slower, but with far less impact.

Vinegar is not bad in itself, but it is half as efficient as citric acid or lactic acid, it smells strongly and it affects rubber and many plastics. Certainly do not touch copper, brass or bronze with vinegar, a toxic compound (copper acetate) will then form and, for the same reason, vinegar must not be used in coffee makers.
“Cleaning vinegar” is humbug, vinegar does not clean at all, it only removes a little lime. Mixing vinegar with sodium bicarbonate (baking powder) and stating that this is an ecological cleaner is stupidity squared: the two neutralize each other, leaving only a totally ineffective salt, sodium acetate.

For the bathroom and in the kitchen, a bleaching agent may sometimes be required to remove coloured stains. Choose an oxygen bleaching agent (sodium percarbonate – never mix with an acidic product!) without further additives. It can be used safely on everything, including limestone and granite, but not on aluminum.

For alkali-sensitive supports such as aluminum, you can use oxygenated water (hydrogen peroxide – never mix with a basic product!), but not on limestone (marble, blue stone, slate, etc.).

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

In the washing machine and for white and colourfast laundry you should use a full detergent (with built-in oxygen bleach) in powdered form. Liquid products contain three to five times as many surfactants – the workhorses of detergents – but also their most health and environmentally harmful components.

For the delicate wash, a liquid detergent that does not contain bleach; you must add that yourself if necessary (see above). For vegetable fibres you use a bleaching agent based on sodium percarbonate, for wool and silk hydrogen peroxyde.

For some types of stains you benefit from a stain remover that contains enzymes and that is applied to the pre-moistened stains.

A small sustainable destaining guide:

• For grease and protein stains, use pure liquid detergent or stain remover on the pre-moistened stain

• For bleachable stains (coffee, tea, wine, beer, grass, curry, tomato, etc.), use a bleach-containing detergent or add bleach separately

• For coloured stains you must first determine what caused the colouring; many coloured stains such as ballpoint pen, ink, tar or chain grease can only be completely removed with a substance in which the perpetrator dissolves, such as alcohol, thinner or another solvent.

• Many stains are not what they seem: chocolate is not a colour stain, but a fat / protein stain; blood and stools are also not bleachable, but fat / protein stains.

Remember that product use must always be related to the nature and adhesion of the dirt, the type of support and the intensity of use of the surfaces to be cleaned. As much product as needed, not more, and if it is not really necessary: ​​no product.

Regarding product selection:

• Choose resources from a company that has been producing mainly or exclusively sustainable products for a long time and that has earned its spurs. There are around twenty companies throughout Europe.

• Choose products that are made primarily or entirely from renewable raw materials and common minerals. Dyes are unnecessary, fragrances can pose a health risk to some users, even if they are of vegetable origin.

• Do not rely on average consumer organizations for the assessment of washing and cleaning products, they have no real expertise on cleaning sustainability criteria. They usually only assess whether they show a powerful effect or artificially high whiteness, coupled with a low price, and that is precisely the main problem: such properties can only be achieved with a lot of unacceptable chemistry.

• Do not trust that grandma’s soap, vinegar and soda will get the job done. Many supports and many types of pollution simply did not yet exist in grandma’s time. Formica, melamine, acrylic, polyester, nylon and the like cannot be cleaned with soap.

Read! The! Labels! For detergents, six raw material classes must compulsory be specified on the label (surfactants, sequestrants, bleaches, enzymes, dyes and perfumes). But the producers are also legally obliged to make a full declaration available to the consumer, in flyer material or on a website. Not a luxury, because there are products that have more than 20 components. Usually the declaration is properly hidden, or you must identify yourself if you want to gain access to it. That is not legal.

• Don’t get caught up in bombastic statements, sweet denominations, or beautiful virgin landscapes. The best detergent is no detergent, an environmentally-friendly detergent does not exist, just like a finger-friendly knife, a toe-friendly sledgehammer or a bee-friendly insecticide don’t exist.

It would be welcome if some environmentally-oriented NGOs would work to further deepen such information as given above and make it available to their members. Now that sustainable food is gradually becoming mainstream, it is more than time to extend that to non-food products.