Monthly Archives: September 2010

4 Toxic Household Cleaning Supplies and Their Alternatives

Many of the classic household cleaning supplies that were used by our parents and their parents before them are fairly toxic. These days we’re more aware of the hazards, but not always sure of how to avoid them. These are some of the problem cleaning supplies and how you can replace them. It’s often surprisingly simple.

1. Bleach

Bleach is certainly powerful as a cleaner, and there are times when you have little other choice for getting rid of mildew. But for routine cleaning it’s really more power than you need.

Bleach is an irritant. If you’ve used it, you know this already. The fumes are uncomfortable to breathe. They aren’t good for you or for your children. On top of that, the labels even warn you about too much contact with bleach.

Replace with: Lemon juice. For many purposes, lemon juice does a very good job. Natural sunlight is also great at bleaching out certain stains. They aren’t as strong, but for most purposes they’re quite good enough.

2. Ammonia

Ammonia is often used in glass cleaners as well as other surface cleaners. Just as with bleach, the fumes are rather unpleasant, and if you read the label you can see that it’s hazardous.

Replace with: Vinegar. It’s not the most appealing of smells, but the scent dissipates as it dries, and it does a fair job of taking other scents with it. Vinegar works great on glass and other hard surfaces, and can be combined with baking soda for many cleaning chores.

3. Air Fresheners

You may love the way air fresheners smell, but their ingredient list may be enough to drive you out of the house. They may contain chemicals such as 1,4 dichlorobenzene, formaldehyde, naphthalene and other VOCs that can cause respiratory effects. These can be a problem if anyone in the house has asthma or other breathing issues.

Beyond that, they don’t usually actually freshen air. They often deaden your ability to smell or simply cover up one smell with another.

Replace with: Open windows are ideal, weather permitting. If not, boil some favorite herbs or some apple peels on the stove, or spray vinegar in the air. Any of these will help with household odors.

4. Toilet Bowl Cleaners

Toilet bowls can get pretty awful looking, and that squeeze bottle is an awfully easy way to clean them, but it’s not the best for the environment. The chemicals in toilet bowl cleaners are very strong, not the kind of thing you want around your family, especially small children.

Replace with: Baking soda plus scrubbing for basic stains, borax plus vinegar, time and scrubbing for worse stains. Or buy a reputable eco friendly brand of toilet bowl cleaner. Seventh Generation makes a toilet bowl cleaner, for example.

Since many products don’t list ingredients, your best bet is to avoid cleaning products that say “Caution.” “Danger” or “Warning” on them. These will have some sort of hazardous chemical you should try to keep out of your house as much as possible.

Products with specific environmental benefits listed are better than ones claiming to be green with no claimed benefits at all. If it says biodegradable, does it say how soon? Are there no phosphates in it? If there’s a clear statement of the benefit, there’s more likely to be something to it. “Natural” and “eco-friendly” don’t mean a thing on their own.

Is Working at Home or Shopping Online Really the Most Eco Friendly Option?

A part of what I love about working at home is that it’s so eco friendly. I don’t have to drive to work. Most days I don’t drive anywhere, in fact. I use some electricity around the house, but I don’t think it’s all that much.

I also enjoy shopping online when it’s practical. I don’t do much of that, as most of the shopping I do in general is for groceries. I don’t buy a lot of things, and so I don’t often have something that I can buy online.

I found this press release claiming that it’s less eco friendly to work at home or shop online very interesting. Very much so counter intuitive, and I can’t say that I entirely agree with it, even though I don’t have numbers to back me up.

Some of the trouble is that it’s hard to tell where all of the data comes from. Are they considering all factors well enough?

From the press release:

The research reveals that people who shop online must order more than 25 items otherwise the impact on the environment is likely to be worse than traditional shopping.

ItĀ also highlights that working from home can increase home energy use by as much as 30 per cent, and can lead to people moving further from the workplace, stretching urban sprawl and increasing pollution

A part of the challenge is that it doesn’t say how they’re assuming the shopping is done or how they’re calculating the carbon cost of the shipping. I hope the full report does that. It’s hard to calculate, especially when you consider that much of the carbon cost of getting a package shipped to your home would happen whether or not you bought something. That cargo plane is still going to fly, that delivery truck is very likely to go through your neighborhood to deliver a package to someone else. These aren’t things that can easily be accounted for.

On the other hand, if you’re using public transportation to go shopping, the same could be said of the carbon cost of that shopping trip. It’s near enough there either way.

The working at home bit can be really tricky. As I own my own business, of course it’s more eco friendly to run it from home. I don’t need an entirely separate office, and I don’t have any transportation costs. My computer and so forth are things I would own anyhow. I live where I do so that my husband can get to his job.

But if you’re working for someone else, there are more variables to consider. Do they have office space available for those who work part of the time at home and part at the office? Are all their workers spread out? Does this, as the report suggests, encourage them to live further from urban areas?

I have a sister who works for an entirely virtual company. They don’t have offices, and their employees are spread out across the United States. Are they more or less energy efficient than one that requires all their employees to work in offices? I know their costs are significantly less than companies that pay for office space. Is it more eco friendly? I don’t know.

The trouble with this kind of report is that the right answer is extremely variable. It depends on where you live, what you’re buying, and so forth. I don’t think there is one right answer, although anything that makes us rethink our assumptions isn’t an entirely bad thing.

How Often Do You Really Need New Things?

I’ve long been amazed by how often many people feel they “need” new things when what they have works perfectly fine. New dishes because they’ve been using the old ones for a few years. A new cell phone because the new model came out.

Not only does buying new things when you don’t need them a waste of your money, it’s not that great for the environment.

It doesn’t matter if you buy the eco friendly version if you’re buying something you don’t need. You’re still buying something you didn’t need to buy.

Organic cotton towels are wonderful. But if your old, conventionally produced ones still dry things just fine, you really aren’t doing the environment a big favor by buying new ones of any sort.

I know how tempting new things are. Our dishes are handmedowns from my mother and my husband’s mother. Yes, a mixed set, and they don’t remotely match.

But they work great. They perform the function of allowing us to eat food off of them. As they break, they’re disposed of.

There’s a key in there for when you do want to buy something new. Find a way to make sure the old stuff keeps getting used.

Sometimes that’s giving it to a friend or relative who likes what you’re getting rid of. Sometimes it’s repurposing it, such as when towels develop holes, and you start using them as rags.

Some basic sewing skills can also help you keep from needing to buy new things too often. I have a comforter that needs a little attention now, as some of the seams have separated. That doesn’t mean I need to replace it, just that it needs a few quick stitches. It’s still warm and otherwise looks good.

When it comes to clothes, it’s amazing the quality you can find at a good thrift store. Sometimes even brand new, unworn clothes that someone decided to get rid of. Thrift stores are a significant improvement on buying new clothes, while still allowing yourself to have something new to you.

The big challenge may be in not feeling pressured to have the latest and greatest. It’s gotten to where people assume you’ll have a recent smart phone, flat screen TV, and buy other new things just because you’ve had the old stuff for a while. That you could choose to live differently shocks some people, and that’s sad to me.

Most important to me is handing down these values to my children. They’re kids, they often want new things, especially if their friends have them or they see an ad on TV. But we talk about why not, and it goes beyond just finances. I don’t want them just buying new stuff because they can afford it. I want them to pick up on the lesson that you buy new things when you need them, with a reasonable definition of “need.”

Some of the Best Things in Life Are Green

You’ve heard the saying “the best things in life are free.” It’s true enough, although not everyone will perfectly agree with that sentiment. Now if you start listing the things in your life you most look forward to doing, you may find that not only are many free or very cheap, they’re pretty eco friendly.

In my life, a big thing is playing with my kids. We can walk to the playground and they’ll have fun there for as long as I care to stay. It’s usually sad to leave. Free to do as well as green.

Better yet are hiking trips. We love getting out in nature as a family. There’s a small cost in terms of driving to a good hiking spot, but from there it’s quite reasonable and helps to build an appreciation for nature in my children, and it’s quite relaxing for me… so long as all the kids stay more or less in sight. It will be more relaxing once my toddler quits deciding that running off in random directions is the way to go.

Thinking about the free and eco friendly things you can do in your life can help you to cut down on the amount you spend on entertainment. You may find that you don’t really need to spend money to have a good time.

You can spend time with your family using things you already own, and I don’t mean the television or computer. Try some of the board games you already own, play tag or just goof off together.

You can read a book. You can get a new book from the library if the ones you already own aren’t inspiring you.

You can work on a hobby that you already have the supplies for. If you tend to go overboard on supplies, you could even go through and figure out something to do with the excess.

Start a new, eco friendly hobby. You may find that you love organic gardening, for example or making recycled crafts.

You can watch a sunset.

You can look into the free activities available in your local area. Most communities have resources to help you find activities online.

If you think there isn’t much you enjoy doing for free, start a list. Get a good start on it, and add to it over time. Use it as a resource when you need something to do. It may help keep you from spending money out of sheer boredom.

Where is the Balance Between Eco Friendly, Convenience and Cost for Your Family?

Being eco friendly is not the easiest thing to do as a family. If you’re serious about it and not just doing the convenient stuff, there are going to be some sacrifices made. Where do you find the balance for your family?

Most of us simply cannot afford to do all of the eco friendly things we dream of. Getting to a point where your family can live off the grid takes a huge investment that most of us simply can’t afford.

The cost factor is the simplest line to draw. If you can’t afford the more eco friendly option, of course you aren’t going to go with it!

Fortunately, many eco friendly decisions don’t cost any money or help to save money. Continuing to use what you have is often the greenest decision you can make. There may be a difference in energy efficiency, but how long does it take to offset the energy cost from a new item being made? Can you dispose of the old item in a way that is better for the environment?

What About Inconvenience?

The inconvenient decisions are much harder to make. How often should you walk or ride your bike rather than take the car? Are you ready to give up your little luxuries?

You can change your perspective on some inconveniences and make them into a treat. You may find that you love riding your bike to run errands, for example. You might enjoy having television free nights, weeks or even a complete television free lifestyle. You won’t know until you try.

I love walking my kids to and from school, for example. We live very close, but many people who live closer still drive their kids to the school.

I find it’s more fun to walk. It’s a great time for just talking with my kids.

It’s also faster than loading the car, driving to the school and dealing with the crowds in the parking lot would be. I was told by one parent that they have to get there at least 20 minutes before school gets out in order to get a parking space. Why would I drive there when I can walk it in under 10 minutes?

Kids love walking in the rain, by the way, or at least mine do.

Don’t Feel Like a Hypocrite for What You Can’t Do

Odds are good that you aren’t going to live your dream eco friendly life. For most of us the realities of just getting by are going to keep us from that. There isn’t always public transportation to replace the car, and there aren’t always jobs in range of a bicycle.

Have a priority list for what matters most to you and what you can afford to do. Starting a garden is a great choice if you the chance. Rethinking your choice of electronics and cutting out the ones you really don’t need is a great choice. Skipping unnecessary purchases is a great choice. Keeping reduce, reuse, and recycle in mind and in order is a great choice.

If you can do every eco friendly thing you want to do, you’re one of the lucky few. The rest of us have to prioritize and find ways to make enough happen while understanding that it can’t all happen.