Archive for Cleaning

Coming full circle

When I started this site, back in 2011, I posted lots of articles about cleaning products. Indeed my preoccupation with sorting the good from the bad in the world of eco cleaning, was really the kicking off point for the blog.

Since that time I have written about a wide variety of eco products from roof tiles to sunscreen, mattresses to chicken broth. But now I find myself coming back to the heart of the household: laundry and cleaning.

I am pleased to report that more and more people have begun to use green cleaning products and, as markets have grown (at over 20% per annum in north america), so has innovation.

That’s great news for consumers, and, hopefully, for the environment. Innovation, at is best, will enable us to leap rather than to edge forward in our quest for more sustainable lifestyles.

So, in that vein, I wanted to share with you details of three companies that are hoping to break the mould and alter the way we buy and use cleaning products. Two are in the UK and one in Canada.

First there is Splosh, a small, Herefordshire-based company that sells a full range of cleaning concentrates by mail for you to dilute at home. Splosh does its best to make things easy for you: it sends you reminders, has an app for ordering and makes sure that its refill boxes fit through your letter box so they are ready and waiting when you get home.

By using Splosh you drastically cut down on the needless shipment of liquid from factory to supermarket to the home. And by refilling bottles you use less plastic. You also save money (products typically cost about half of what an equivalent eco product would cost at the grocery store).

In a similar vein, Delphis Eco, based in south London has developed an Eco Turtle filling station in conjunction with a primary school in Surrey.

Delphis makes eco cleaners primarily for trade use (though it does have plans to move into the retail market soon). But Managing Director, Mark Jankovich, wanted to do more and worked with a nearby school to design a cheap and sustainable dispensing station which allows schools (and other institutions) to purchase bulk concentrates and on-sell them.

As with the Spolsh system, the manufacturer ships concentrate, which is diluted by the customer. The interesting angle here is that kids can adopt the system and in so doing become sustainability advocates and actors themselves. They can also make money to finance school projects or charity causes.

Full details of the filling station and its economics are provided here.

Finally, my favourite product discovery so far this year is a box of laundry strips, made by the Canadian company, Dizolve in Moncton, New Brunswick.

These are fabulous things: perforated sheets of eco-friendly laundry detergent, with or without fragrance.

You tear off a strip (if you are wondering, the texture is something akin to a floppy communion wafer) and place it in your detergent dispenser (assuming we are all on front loading machines here…otherwise throw it in with your clothes), then your wash is ready to go.

I was worried the product would not dissolve properly, but it did (the name rings true!), and the cleaning power was good too. My guess is that the sheets might not dislodge the very harshest stains, but for everyday laundry they are super.

I love the sheets for the neatness of the dosing (no guessing or sloppy measuring out of liquid), for their lightness (a 64 load pack weighs about 180g whereas a recent purchase of concentrated washing liquid weighed in at 2.5kg for 60 loads) and for the fact that sales also help support food banks and charities. This is a business that seems to be serious about doing good.

Like Delphis, the company also has a fundraising possibility on its website. Like Splosh the product easily fits through your mail box.

Dizolve sheets are not presently available in the UK, but fingers crossed. In Canada and the US you can buy online at a cost of $12.99 for 64 loads or about 20 cents per load (before tax and shipping) which is comparable to other eco laundry solutions.

With that, I am going to sign off for a while. It has been great writing these reviews over the past three years and I have learnt a lot. But, like many other blog writers, I find it hard to fit this extra activity into my busy life.

Thanks to everyone who has read the blog, and even greater thanks to anyone who has begun to make more sustainable choices. I still believe that each one of us can make a difference.

If I identify a really compelling eco product, I might be tempted back but – for now – good bye.

 

Pesky drains

People don’t talk about clogged drains too much. I guess it’s not a really exciting topic of conversation. But that does mean that when the water starts flowing too, too slowly out of your sink (you spot that tell-tale soap and dirt ring), you can feel rather alone.

How do other people deal with this problem, I ask myself? Or is it just me and my four fine children that create the gunk that narrows the pipes that prevents the water from disappearing when it should?

My hunch is that I am not alone. But that is of little benefit to me as I ponder my options: (a) call an expensive plumber (b) pour some noxious chemical down the drain, or (c) as I have been known to do –draw down on my friend Bob’s reserves of goodwill and ability to dismantle a drain.

I have tried the vinegar and baking soda trick, but had relatively little success or found only temporary relief. So I was pretty happy to be sent a nifty little product called Drain-FX which promised to do the job in an efficient and eco-friendly way.

Drain-FX essentially turns your faucet into a mini pressure washer which blasts all that gunk out of your drain. Hey presto, you are good to go again.

The kit, which sells on-line for $19.95, consists of a thin piece of tubing, a quick connector and a variety of attachments that screw onto your tap in place of the aerator. By doing this you increase the pressure from about 50 psi (city standard) to around 250 psi. The flexible piping allows you to spray the concentrated stream of water around your drain with gay abandon. Because drains typically become larger the further down they go, the gunk, once dislodged, ceases to be problematic.

I must admit, though, that the whole thing looked pretty off-putting to me when I first received it. But once I made the commitment to get on with the job, I found it quite easy and even managed to avoid spraying myself. There’s a You Tube video in case you get stuck.

Best of all, you can use the kit again and again, or lend it to your neighbours (if they buck the trend and share tales of their plumbing problems). It wil work on most taps, so long as you can find an aerator to remove. Sadly, that was not the case for my charming old powder-room taps. But Drain-FX did work in my kitchen despite my initial misgivings (I have a extendable sprayer-type tap).

So, as I pack my bags for my upcoming move to the UK – a land of fine plumbing I feel sure – I will be certain to take my Drain-FX with me. I hope they have the same aerator fittings there: according to the website 99% of the world’s aerators fall into four sizes, all of which can handle Drain-FX. So I’d be unlucky to be in that 1%.

While I am on the topic, though, let me say that my postings are likely to be few and far between over the next few months as I make the move. I don’t think that news will ruin your summer. I just hope you won’t turn your spam filter against me as I intend to pop up in your mail box again sometime in the fall.

Scrubbers, scourers and sponges

Yes, I know you’ve all been on the edge of your seats since I promised you this exciting post a few weeks ago. Relax, the wait is over: sit back with your cup of tea and enjoy (?).

I hope I did not alienate too many with my disparaging remarks about washing dishes with cloths. I am now trying to claw my way back into your good books by giving you fantastic options for implements with which to abrade your plates and pots when the going gets tough.

For my stainless pots, the first thing I reach for (while still clutching my blue washing up brush) is my Lagostina stainless cleaning powder. Many times that does the job on its own (it’s also great on my Corain sink).

But when things are really stuck tight, my next choice is a scouring pad. I have two top choices. The first is a coconut fibre scrub pad by Safix. It looks somewhat like a loofah but is actually made, in India, from stuck-together coir (the hair-like strands that surround a coconut shell).

So this is a truly natural product, without question biodegradable, non-rusting and not injurious to the hands like some metal scrubbers. The website does not claim that production benefits poor people, but let’s hope. And using coir – which can also be made into rope, but is often wasted – is a great idea.

The pad is so light that shipping emissions don’t bother me.

Safix products are available in health food stores in Canada and, apparently at Waitrose stores in the UAE (this is from the website: not sure about UK Waitrose stores as no UK distributor is listed). [If you are in the Ottawa area, try Arbour in the Glebe.]

My other top choice, for a full range of scourers and implements to suit every washing up disposition, is a UK family-owned company called Ecoforce.

Ecoforce makes laundry and cleaning hardware most of which contain at least 95% post-industrial and post-consumer recycled content. It has several scourer options (all non-metallic): a dark green heavy duty pad; a white non-scratch scourer pad and a thicker sponge topped with a scourer pad (a good all-in-one option for non-brush washer-uppers).

All are pretty traditional products in appearance and work well on pots, pans and plates (begging the question: why use virgin materials for these tasks?).

Ecoforce scourers are not biodegradable. The good news is that they are made in the UK, which hopefully means they are made in a pretty non-polluting/wasting facility (always a big concern with cheap stuff from China).

Ecoforce is part of a family of companies (EasyDo) which also makes a product called Dishmatic. I’m sure you have seen something like this before. It is a hollow implement (like a brush handle) that can be filled with your favourite washing up soap (Biovert in my case..). Dishmatic has the advantage of offering three interchangeable head types that can be clicked into place: white non-scratch; green heavy duty and a steel scourer option.

I give you this information somewhat grudgingly as I am no fan of these washing up wands. On the plus side, Dishmatic is made of 50% recycled content (less than the Ecoforce products: I guess the plastic handle isn’t great). On the negative side, these tools dispense way too much dish soap for my liking and they are almost expressly designed to serve those who wash dishes under a running tap.

Please, please don’t do this. It’s a huge waste of water. And it is also inefficient: it’s much more effective to let your dishes soak in a basin of water while you wash. (or, if you have these bad washing up habits, to use a good, energy-efficient dishwasher).

So, was that worth waiting for? I cannot imagine it was, but here’s hoping.

Ecoforce products area available widely in the UK and through independent health food and eco-stores in Canada (though not the US, as far as I can see). Prices seem fair at $3.59 for a 3-pack of scourers (but they are much lower in the UK at £1.25 for the same pack).

Full disclosure here: Ecoforce sent me scourers to review. Saffix did not.

Cleaning up after Christmas

I like Christmas more and more each year, but by the end of December I am usually itching to get all the Christmas ‘stuff’ out of the house and get a good clean going.
I have posted several times about effective and non-toxic cleaning products (see here for silver cleaning, stainless cleaning, window cleaning, dish cleaning,  the list goes on). I have also told you about my favourite cleaning cloth. But I haven’t really got down and dirty on other cleaning implements. So here we go……

First let me say that I believe there are two fundamentally different types of people in this world: those that wash up with a brush (I fall into this category) and those that wash up with a cloth or sponge (god forbid).

Cloth and sponge people: I respect you, I admire you, but I just don’t understand why you would choose a grimy cloth over a lovely washing-up brush. And, in my view, the loveliest of all the washing up brushes is the ‘professional’ washing-up brush made by the Swedish company, Stiwex, sold by Lakeland in the UK (2 for £5.99).

This brush lasts for years (I kid you not) without the bristles flattening, thereby cutting back on significant amounts of plastic and landfill space. The handle is the right length, the bristles are the right stiffness: it works.

And maybe I like that I am officially a professional cleaner when I use it. Beats being a downtrodden housewife.

I haven’t found these Stiwex brushes stateside, which limits the usefulness of this post. I am sorry. Lakeland does ship overseas, but the cost is high (a £15 washing up brush may not be worth it). So just make sure that next time a friend travels to the UK, you lodge a request for a cheap and useful souvenir.

As much as I love my blue-bristled brush, there are jobs that it can’t handle. For that you need scourers and scrubbers and the like. It won’t surprise you to know that I have views on those too, but you’ll have to wait a week or so to hear them.

Laundry soaps for the adventurous

This contribution to your eco-journey is based on input by Cindy Scott, my chief laundry adviser (she wrote the guest post on dryer sheets).

washer

Cindy has been experimenting with homemade laundry soap…..and she assures me that it really works, even beating out commercial soaps when it comes to stinky running gear, which is certainly impressive. It is also very cheap to make.

Cindy used the laundry soap recipe from the Suzuki site. As long as you put in pure soap granules, you can pretty much guarantee that this is an eco-friendly concoction (see here for a discussion of the green credentials of soap).

By contrast, even some of the greener commercially available laundry soaps (including my favourite, Biovert) contain surfactants which are likely derived from petrochemicals and are certainly not naturally occurring (i.e. even if plant-derived, they require a grand amount of processing). So, for purists, making your own is a good bet. Once you have established your sources for borax and soda you are in business…you can even supply your friends.

Being a keen laundress, Cindy experimented with different ways to keep her whites sparkling. She found the best solution was to add 1 tablespoon of Nellie’s all-natural oxygen brightener to the water first and let it soak for 30 minutes.

laundry_oxygenbleach_MED

Nellie’s All Natural is a Vancouver-based soap company. I use the washing soda (which is really washing detergent) from time to time, though it is hard to find in the east (I actually got mine at HomeSense). I am not 100% convinced by the company’s eco-credentials (their dryer balls are made out of the über-evil PVC which they proudly announce is `widely used in the healthcare sector, children’s toys and food packaging’….), but their products generally seem pretty good and the packaging is attractive if you go for the retro laundry-room look.

The oxygen brightener is made from sodium carbonate, sodium percarbonate, primary linear alcohol ethoxylate (those surfactants again) and sodium sulphate. Pretty benign, in the scheme of things, and with no fragrances or dyes.

I did a bit of research to see how the Nellie’s product stacks up compared to OxiClean, a more readily-available oxygen stain remover. It turns out that the active ingredients are the same (sodium carbonate and sodium percarbonate), but that OxiClean contains undisclosed fragrances and other ingredients (see here for a discussion of the pros and cons of OxiClean).

The purest product in this class seems to be Oxo Brite, made by the Earth Friendly Products company in the US. This contains nothing but the two active ingredients. I wonder whether it would work as well on Cindy’s whites: do the surfactants make a difference?

Anyway, back to the point. The soaking step is fine if you have a top-loading washing machine (and a good memory) but not so good for folks like me with precision-engineered German front-loaders. I guess I could use a bucket to pre-soak, add some dilute solution to the drum before hand, or use the pre-wash function. I suspect, though, that I will just let my whites gently yellow so I look all natural and non-bleached….

Not to be outdone, I have been doing my own laundry experimentation, using soap nuts (literally seeds from the Chinese Soap Berry Tree) in my wash.

soap nuts

The Green Virgin products website (from where I was kindly sent my nuts) tells you all about what these are and how to use them.

So far they have done a pretty good job for me. I use them mostly on bed-linen and other fairly benign stuff. I recently conducted one of my scientific stain tests, pitting them against `my regular detergent’ on red wine, tomato, olive oil and banana. They didn’t do too badly, but they were definitely worse than Biovert. They are, however, self-evidently natural (usually you only find seed pods in your laundry when you have inquisitive kids who don’t empty their pockets) and a very cheap option too (around 12 cents per wash).

So that’s that on laundry adventures for now.

Finally, let me apologize both for this too-long post and the errant emails subscribers have received from time to time with old postings. I am doing my best to get to the bottom of that problem.

Shiny silverware (with ease)

So as I was setting the table for Thanksgiving dinner last weekend I noticed – horror of horrors – that my cutlery was all dull and stained. Fortunately that gave me an immediate opportunity to engage in one of my favourite cleaning tasks: polishing my flatware. I find this supremely satisfying. Curious, but true.

flatware

My cleaning product of choice for this task is washing soda, sodium carbonate (Na2CO3). If you don’t happen to have any washing soda on hand, you can substitute its close relative, baking soda, sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO3 : shouldn’t that be sodium hydrogen carbonate?).

eco pionerr

Washing soda is quite a bit more aggressive and more strongly alkaline than baking soda but it is a little hard to find in pure form. I get mine at a local eco-store called Arbour. It is also the major ingredient in water softener so you can, according to this article, use that instead. Or try on-line.

For basic cleaning jobs, washing soda does a fantastic job. Its main strength, as far as I am concerned, is in removing brown tea stains from mugs, teapot spouts and teaspoons. Just soak items in a hot washing soda solution (I am very casual about my dilutions) and the discolouration simply dissolves away. Stubborn stains might take a few hours, or require a bit of rubbing, but teaspoons and other cutlery come clean almost immediately.

The only thing you should not allow to touch washing soda is aluminium (tools and pans) as it will turn these black. However….if you want to clean your silverware, aluminium is just what you need.

Aluminium Foil small

Place a sheet of aluminium foil in the bottom of a large ceramic or glass bowl and put your silver knives and forks blade-down in the bowl (the handles don’t tend to get that dirty anyway). For those who are keen on purchased inputs, you can actually buy aluminium plates to stick in the bottom of your bowl, but this seems a little crazy to me.

Next, sprinkle in some washing (or baking) soda. Then pour boiling water from your kettle into the bowl and, hey presto, your silver tarnish will dissolve away before your eyes. (after which you just need to rinse and dry the items). The solution suggested on-line is 1 cup soda to one gallon of water. Again, I am very approximate.

Obviously there is a clever chemical reaction going on when you do this (you will smell the gas produced, not an unpleasant odour). If you want to know more about what is happening, see this fact sheet.

This cleaning method is great for flatware, but also works for silver necklaces and other small items that you can fit in a bowl. The downside is that the chemical reaction does not put up any barrier to further tarnish (as I believe commercial silver cleaners do) so things do appear to get dirtier again a little sooner than they might if you were to rub away with chemicals. But I am actually happy not to be eating with flatware covered in anti-tarnish coatings.

And here’s a bonus: crafts. If you always wanted to make a washing soda snowflake crystal, look no further.

To finish, I should extend my thanks to my mother who taught me this, and several other cleaning tips, when I was still quite young. It is such a simple solution, I am amazed that it is not more commonly known. A silver-cleaning-product-company conspiracy, no doubt.

 

Make your windows sparkle!

When we need to clean something we usually reach for products designed (and marketed) for that purpose. Often, though, there are easier and cheaper solutions already close at hand.

This is a real bonus. I hate the proliferation of half-used bottles in my cleaning cupboard. Every year I swear I am going to pare down to a single multi-purpose (eco) product, then I get swept up by some new offering (which so often disappoints, hence the half bottles).

The two hands-down home cleaning winners are vinegar and baking soda.

vinegar

Both are cheap, non-toxic and versatile: there are entire web pages devoted to their many uses, which include, in the case of vinegar, cleaning windows.

I gave up on chemical window cleaners a while back and have since tried various `green’ glass cleaners. I have not found one that dazzles. So I reverted to the old vinegar and water in a spray bottle (in a ratio of about 1:4, though some argue for 1:1)…couple this with a lint-free cloth and all is good, no? Much as I would like this to be the solution, something seems to be missing. So here are my two key window-cleaning tips.

1. Add a drop – not a large squirt – of dishwashing soap to the spray bottle. The Biovert I reviewed a while back does a good job here. The addition of soap removes any existing films from past cleaners and generally gets rid of dirt better (in my view).

2. Get the right tools. Yes, the cloth should be lint free (a Mabu wood pulp cloth is always a good bet) and, yes, a squeegee can be a good idea (though don’t underestimate the skill it takes to wield one like a professional: for me I just end up with more drips and mess). But my tool of choice for window cleaning is an unconventional one: a Lee Valley flexible stainless steel spatula (a durable bargain at $9.95).
leevalleyspatula
I keep one of these spatulas in the kitchen for flipping food and another in the cleaning cupboard where its flexible, yet very true and somewhat sharp, edge comes in so handy. Spray a bit of vinegar/water/soap on the window, scrape with the spatula and all the caked-on insects and mysterious little splatters (including paint) are dislodged from your glass without the rubbing and sweating that might otherwise be required.

The spatula is also invaluable for removing bits of tape from floors and any other tasks that require precision scraping from hard, flat surfaces. It is safer than a razor and more versatile than a paint scraper. I could not live without it!

Last thing on the windows: some people swear that adding a dash of rubbing alcohol in addition to vinegar and dishsoap makes all the difference…I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

More green cleaning choices

I thought everyone out there had much more lofty concerns than me….but it seems that I am not alone in my search for good, green cleaning products.

My recommendation this week is a stainless and copper cleaner marketed under the Lagostina brandname in Canada and under Steel Glo (or sometimes Kleen King) in the US.

I bought this cleaner to clean my stainless saucepans (which it does extremely well), but I now use it more widely: it does a great job on cutlery but is also a stand-by as a mildly abrasive cleaner for pyrex, the cooktop and even my sink (which is Corian).

lagostina

Just shake a little powder into a damp pot, scrub with a brush or pad and, hey presto, it is all clean. Even stubborn burnt-on food stains and those strange white marks that appear on stainless are easily removed. I hate to admit it, but this is a cleaning task I secretly enjoy.

I have always had my concerns about what might be in this loose, white powder which is marketed as non-toxic and biodegradable. Is it just baking soda? Or something far more noxious? I did a little research and discovered that the main ingredient (80-90%) is a mysterious-sounding substance called nepheline syenite. This appears to be a benign volcanic rock (non-toxic, non-carcinogenous, etc.) that is mined in Canada, amongst other places. The fact that it is mined does give some cause for concern, but I have not been able to find anything really damning.

small_sg_powder

So, if you cook in stainless or copper, or simply like a shiny kitchen, do give it a try. And if you know anything that I don’t about nepheline syenite, do let me know.

The product is made in the USA. In Canada it is available at Sears, Canadian Tire (in the pots and pans section, rather than the cleaning section), the Bay and Home Outfitters at a price of between $4-5 (one can lasts a while). In the US, Steel Glo is available here (only $8.95 for 3 cans). The Amazon price for Kleen King is three times higher and the product is the same.

The best all round cleaning cloth

I know that household cloths are not exactly a glamorous topic of conversation, and I can forgive you (perhaps I even envy you) if you have never given them much thought. However, if you do have a thing about cleaning, or just like good, long-lasting products, then I can hotly recommend Mabu cleaning cloths.

mabu small

These cloths are made out of 8 layers of woven wood fibres. They are tough, soft (after initial washing: they come stiffened with natural starch) and durable.

But the thing that I like best about them is that they are naturally resistant to odours. I also use traditional cotton dish cloths, which I like, until they get that nasty, rancid smell. To get rid of the smell requires either bleach or very high temperatures, neither of which sits well with my eco-conscience. My Mabu cloth, on the other hand, lives in the dark, in a closet where I hide it after washing my floor. Despite this lack of light and warmth, it never gets smelly.

I wash my Mabus in warm water, but they don’t do well in the dryer (of course, you are not using a dryer, anyway….). Since they are made from wood pulp fibre, they can be composted when they eventually exceed their usefulness (which should be several years).

Mabu cloths are available on Amazon, at various health stores and, in the UK, at Waitrose and Lakeland. Home Hardware, here in Canada, sells an apparently identical product – the Natura wonder cloth. I have never been able to tell the difference so maybe these are just Mabu under another name.

Dishwasher essentials

Although it seems quite counter-intuitive, it has been shown that washing in a dishwasher may be more environmental than washing by hand (typically using excess hot water). Now, that depends, of course, on the type of dishwasher you have and how full you fill it. Realistically, though, we all love our dishwashers and are not going to give them up, so we need to think about how we can use them better.

Conventional dishwasher powders can be a nasty cocktail of chemicals, including petroleum-derived fragrances and phosphates that pollute waterways. But, the truth is, that most people will continue to use these unless they can find a detergent that really works. There is nothing more miserable (or unecological) than unloading the dishwasher and finding that you have to rewash it all. A few bad experiences and most everyone reverts to conventional products.

The eco-question that I am most often asked by friends is which dishwashing powder I use.

So here’s the answer: I am a long-time devotee of Seventh Generation Free and Clear Automatic Dishwasher Powder. I have tried numerous other powders and gels (including the gel from Seventh Generation) and have never had anything close to the success rate I have with this product. In fact I would go as far as to say that I am completely happy with it. I like that it has no chlorine, phosphates, fragrances, petroleum-based products, etc. in it. I like that it is a powder (shipping liquids unnecessarily is something that really bugs me, as you may have noticed in many of my posts). I like that it comes in a paper box that can be recycled (plastics recycling is always somewhat hit-and-miss, it seems). Most of all, I like the fact that it works (in my machine – which is a Bosch) and my dishes come out sparkling.

free and clear small

I do not even use commercial rinse-aid any more. This is another questionable, and also expensive, product that can be readily replaced by white vinegar. No effort, no mixing, just fill your dispenser with vinegar the same way you would with rinse-aid. And there you go.

I hope these items work as well for you as they do for me. Who knows? Maybe dishwasher/powder pairings are highly specific.

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