Green Cleaning Guide

G Magazine

Fed up with cleaners that strip back your skin along with the dirt? Then try these eco-cleaning tips


Credit: iStockphoto

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Defending our environment can be a real challenge, especially when it comes to running the gauntlet of the supermarket aisle.

We need to find products not only to suit our immediate needs, but to be gentle on the environment as well — and then work out if the wallet can handle the extra load.

This is especially the case when it comes to cleaning products.

Labels such as 'environmentally friendly', 'green', 'eco' and 'biodegradable' are effectively meaningless.

Not only are there few formal and enforceable standards associated with those descriptions, but they need only apply to a small part of the product's ingredients — as little as five per cent.

They also say little about other factors such as packaging, the manufacturer's business practices or how much fuel has been consumed to get the product to you.

It becomes even more complex when you consider that there are something like 37,000 chemicals in common use in Australia that have never been tested for their health or environmental impacts, according to environmental chemist Jo Immig, coordinator of the National Toxics Network and author of Safer Solutions.

"I think there is a need to be wary of greenwashing," Immig says. "Those sorts of words like 'biodegradable', 'natural' and 'environmentally responsible' are a bit loose at the moment, and I think it is hard for consumers to make those choices."


There is an Australian standard for biodegradability, called AS4351.

If a product claims to comply with the standard, it must have passed specific tests for at least part of its ingredients.

But any product can claim 'biodegradability' without having to meet the standard.

Bridget Gardner, the educator and advocator behind environmental cleaning consultants, Fresh Green Clean, says there are so few rules regulating labelling in this area that it often just comes down to the manufacturer's word.

"Usually the problem is the lack of knowledge — the formulators haven't got a clue," Gardner says.

"If there was some guidance from the government on what is environmentally friendly then they might be able to make an assumption, but there just is no guidance."

Labelling criteria are tighter in the US and Europe, so even though they have travelled a long way, products from here are more likely to deliver on their promises.


These complications aside, there are some chemicals clearly worth avoiding.

Phosphates discharged into freshwater rivers and lakes can lead to algal growths, which reduce oxygen availability to other native plants and aquatic animals in our waterways.

The antimicrobial chemical triclosan is an organochlorine compound that accumulates in the food chain, and is suspected of being an endocrine-disrupter — a chemical that can interfere with the hormone system.

And petroleum-based compounds are made from a non-renewable resource. Opt for products made from a sustainable (usually plant-based) source instead.

What to look for

There are several other factors worth considering when looking for cleaning products that have a reduced impact on the environment. For example:

  • Does the product come in a recycled or recyclable container?
  • Is it manufactured in Australia or has it had to be transported a long way to get to you?
  • Is it grey-water and septic-tank friendly?
  • Can you buy refills or buy in bulk?
  • Does the manufacturer have good environmental practices and credentials?

Gardner also suggests looking for products that have a complete list of ingredients on the packaging. While not foolproof, it at least suggests they have nothing to hide, she says.

Some cleaning products, particularly laundry powder, dishwashing machine powder and washing up liquid, can be purchased in bulk using your own containers, which saves considerable packaging and the fuel spent on trips to the supermarket.

But it's not easy, says Immig. "I try my best but I don't want to have to do half a day's research every time I buy a product."

Eco-kitchen tip

Oven cleaners are often the worst chemical offenders, packing the likes of sodium hydroxide, which can cause chemical burns or blindness. So mix bicarb soda (sodium bicarbonate) into a paste with water, paint the inside of the oven then turn it on low for 10 minutes.

The heat melts the grease, the bicarb absorbs it and dries to form a crust that can be simply scooped out. Just scrubbing with bicarb paste and a bit of soap also does the trick.

Eco-bathroom tip

Diluted laundry liquid (biodegradable, of course) and a scrubbing brush can work very well to clean toilets, rather than a product that's laden with anti-bacterial chemicals and detergents.

Keeping windows and glass surfaces clean can require nothing more than water and a good microfibre cloth.

Vinegar and newspaper also works as well as commercial window cleaners, although use sparingly and be prepared for a bathroom smelling like a fish and chip shop.