Spring Cleaning

Things to remember and do...

Nothing is completely safe. Almost anything we dump down our drains, even if derived from plants and other "natural" substances, can cause problems. Even with the increasing number of greener products on the market, none is perfectly safe for the earth.

Don't accept vague claims. Words like "biodegradable" or "nontoxic" have no legal definitions. Ask companies to substantiate their environmental claims in plain English.

Avoid cleaners containing phosphates. They biodegrade totally and quickly. But when they get into rivers and lakes, they cause algae blooms, robbing the water of oxygen, blocking sunlight, and ultimately killing marine life.

Minimize use of bleaches. The most common bleach is chlorine, which in wastewater can create toxic compounds. Non-chlorine bleaches are gentler to clothes and the environment, though they are less effective in colder-water temperatures, requiring more energy-intensive hot water.

Buy concentrates whenever possible. Ask manufacturers to produce refillable versions that allow you to refill a spray bottle by adding water to a packaged concentrate.

Check with local authorities. Contact a Poison Control Center (usually listed in the front of the phone book) if you are unsure about a product. Most centers have data about chemicals' health hazards.

Products for the ages. Some greener cleaners have been around for years. Chances are good your grandparents used them, and they may be in your cupboard, too. Armed with these five products, you can clean just about anything.

  1. Arm & Hammer Baking Soda, introduced in 1846, is a mild abrasive that provides economical and ecological alternatives to many cleaning chores, from removing scuff marks on linoleum floors to rinsing hairspray and shampoo buildup from hair and brushes.
  2. Bon Ami Polishing Cleanser, sold since 1887, contains no chlorine, phosphates, dyes, or perfumes. Because of its mild abrasive quality, it can be used on porcelain, stainless steel, cookware, glass-top ranges, cultured marble, and fiberglass. It also can be used to clean butcher-block tops, woks, food processors, white shoes, luggage, boats, and swimming pools.
  3. Fels Naptha is a rugged bar soap invented in 1894. A staple of some laundry rooms, it also can be used to help deter the effects of poison ivy, especially if you wash with it directly after exposure to the weed. Some gardeners use it as an insect repellent, shredding it and sprinkling it around plants.
  4. Dr. Bronner's Pure Castile Soap is biodegradable and extremely versatile. The label lists 18 uses, from shaving and shampooing to treating athletes food and purifying water. Invented in 1935 by Bronner to kill the odor of diapers, it has been on the market since 1941.
  5. 20 Mule Team Borax, sold since 1890, is a good disinfectant and mold killer and a very cheap household cleaner. It can be used as a polish for stainless steel, as a toilet bowl cleaner, as a fabric whitener and softener, and as a stain remover for blood, chocolate, and grease. Some people use borax to kill fleas by sprinkling it on their carpet, then vacuuming it up.