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Clean up your act

Rob Holdway explains why we might be too clean for our own good..

It’s bad enough having to do the cleaning without feeling horrendously guilty every time you wash bubbles down the sink or wipe a cloth round the bath using chemical-laden toxic products. But you can’t leave your home to grow mould and smell like a cat’s litter tray, so how can you have a sparkling home and still feel good about it? Rob explains how it’s possible to keep your house gleaming – and be green.

We all know a clean freak – the type who swipes away your coffee cup to wash it, before you’ve swallowed the last gulp; or whose house you dread entering for fear you’ll drop a crumb on the immaculately vacuumed carpets or leave water marks on the taps.

We’ve become a nation gripped with the cleaning bug, fixated with eliminating every fleck of dust. We are all constantly bombarded with adverts for the latest grime-busting, bug-eliminating cleaning products. There are even TV shows dedicated to finding out how clean our houses are. According to the UK Cleaning Products Industry Association the domestic cleaning product market is worth around £2 billion.
But could your germ-destroying efforts to keep your homes and families clean, actually be harming your loved ones and the environment we live in?

The nasties
Look at the label of your cleaning products and the ingredients list probably appears short and sweet smelling. That’s because for many products there is no obligation to disclose the full list of ingredients. The only ingredient that has to be listed on the label, is the percentage of ionic and anionic surfactants. But the true contents list can be astonishingly long and complex. These chemical cocktails can release toxins into the atmosphere and the waterways, causing damage to human health and poisoning animal and plant life. Once washed down the drain, chemicals that cannot easily be removed are pumped into the rivers and seas along with sewage. Those which do not quickly degrade can enter marine ecosystems where they are passed through the food chain, eventually ending up back inside you, via the fish we eat.

Too clean for our good
More than 300 man-made chemicals have been detected in humans and according to GreenPeace, babies are born with toxic chemicals already contaminating their bodies. Your efforts to create healthy homes may actually be having the opposite effect. In fact, a study conducted by America’s Environmental Protection Agency found the people they studied breathed two to five times more hazardous chemicals when indoors, than when sitting in their gardens.

Damage limitation
Eighty percent of households buy bleach, which is usually chlorine based. Many other products, such as toilet cleaner, contain chlorine compounds, too. Chlorine reacts with other substances in the environment forming hazardous compounds. Artificial musks added to fragrance products, in particular those used for laundry, have been linked to hormone disruption and liver damage. Similarly, the effects of phalates used to help make fragrance last longer, are thought to disrupt hormone levels, cause birth defects and even have carcinogenic properties.

Another group of ingredients lacking a clean bill of health are the alkyl phenols, which can cause damage to the immune system and affect fertility.

Fishy business
Marine life is also at risk from overzealous housekeeping. Optical brighteners added to detergent to reflect light and give clothes a whiter appearance have potentially toxic effects on aquatic organisms and will leave a stain on your conscience. Other chemicals such as phosphates pollute waterways by over fertilising algae and plant life, depleting oxygen supplies and making it impossible for marine life to survive.

One of the few ingredients listed on many products are surfactants. Although they can be derived naturally from vegetable substances, many brands choose surfactants made from petrochemicals, such as sodium lauryl sulphate. These come from a non-renewable source and add to the depletion of our already dwindling oil supplies. The extraction and processing imposes an unacceptable burden on the environment, too. Surfactants also damage animals, with some capable of stripping the protective layer from a frog’s back.

Wasted water
As if the effects of these ingredients on human and animal life aren’t bad enough, there is also a burden on the water system. Unlike the dirt, these chemicals don’t come out in the wash and vast amounts of water are required to neutralise them before the water can safely re-enter our supply. For example, every time you wash laundry using conventional detergent, a shocking 10-12,000 litres are needed to treat the waste water produced.
The use of water, the main ingredient in many cleaning products, can also be detrimental to the environment. By packaging and transporting this excess water, resources are wasted, energy used and waste produced.

Don’t be greenwashed
Big brands are jumping on the green bandwagon by pretending to clean up their act by encouraging consumers to change the way they use products.

Ariel has financed a big advertising campaign, persuading customers to wash their clothes at 300. It rightly lectures us that 80% of energy used in washing goes towards heating the water so by turning the temperature down, they claim you will save energy equivalent to making 2,500 cups of tea. This is all very well but it doesn’t make the ingredients in Ariel’s products any greener.

Persil’s approach to improving its green credentials has been to make its products more concentrated, thus requiring less water during manufacture and less packaging. More bottles can be fitted into a lorry reducing the amount of delivery vehicles on the road and consequently reducing CO2 emissions. This is all good stuff – lower emissions, less packaging waste and less water, but the product ingredients are essentially the same as they were before.

Green brands
Thankfully, we’re becoming aware of the damage cleaning can have and many of us are now choosing natural and eco-friendly products. In 2006, the UK spent £34 million on ethical cleaning brands according to the Co-operative Bank. There are more eco-cleaning labels than ever before and even the major supermarkets have their own green-cleaning ranges. But what’s the difference between them and are they really as worthy as they claim to be?

Alma Win, Bio D, Method and Astonish are amongst the leading ecological brands, but the largest and the most respected of all is Ecover.

Ecover background
Founded in 1980 in Belgium, Ecover marketed a phosphate-free washing powder even before phosphates were branded a problem. For over 27 years, it has been developing and producing ecological and effective washing and cleaning products, made from plant and mineral-based ingredients.

Ecover takes into account the origins of the raw materials all the way through to the biodegradation of the final products. Ecover operates with sustainability at its core and it is constantly innovating to create products that have a minimum impact on the environment.

What’s the difference?
One of the most impressive things about Ecover is the building where the products are manufactured; it is the world’s first ecological factory. Made from recycled and recyclable materials, the factory is energy efficient and has a ‘green’ roof, which captures the rain to be used in the manufacturing process. It is so efficient, the company doesn’t need to use any other extra water. Machines are cleaned using air pressure to reduce water consumption, and the onsite purification system ensures that any water used leaves the factory as clean as when it entered.

A large number of its employees live near the factory and cycle to work. Ecover pioneered the cycling allowance in Belgium which gives staff financial incentive to ditch cars.

Ecover discovered that a ‘paper-free’ office is unfeasible but it works primarily with computer files. Press releases, advertisements and designs are scanned in and distributed electronically when possible. Unavoidable paper products like print-outs, faxes, business cards, leaflets and brochures are printed on recycled paper, using vegetable ink if possible and failed print-outs are used as scrap paper. Presentations are not printed out on plastic overhead projector slides but are projected directly from the computer. Nothing gets thrown away if it can still be recycled in one way or another.

After all its hard work and research, you’d expect Ecover to keep its eco recipes a secret. Not so. The company is so committed to making a positive difference to our world that in 2002, it released the chemical formula of its detergents to allow other producers to clean up their products.

Do the products work?
Ecover products are almost indistinguishable from the market leaders in their cleaning ability and they are my chosen brand in both the office and at home. They clean well but they also get the green medal from me for the ingredients, packaging and because the cleaning substance disappears along with the dirt once you pull the plug.

Raw Materials Ecover products are based on plant and mineral resources, which have two major advantages:

  • They are renewable – they can be replenished and are inexhaustible.
  • They offer an unlimited range of possibilities – even the plastic used to make its compost bags is derived from vegetable materials.

Packaging Ecover uses as little as possible and all the packaging materials used are easily recyclable.

Ecover is also committed to reuse. More than 20 years ago, Ecover started offering consumers the option of in-shop refilling of product packages. Simply take your empty Ecover bottle to the shop, and get it refilled.

Biodegradation Current legislation requires 60% of the detergents in a cleansing agent to be fully decomposed within 28 days. At the end of the process of complete biological decomposition, all that should remain is water, CO2 and minerals, which can be taken up again by living natural systems. But it’s only detergents that need to be fully biodegradable by law, which only make up three to 20% of a product. Ecover makes sure the entire product is fully degradable, with nothing left except minerals.

One of the greatest benefits of Ecover products is the amount of water needed to neutralise products. Each dose of Ecover toilet cleaner requires 400 times less water to neutralise than its nearest competitor. If 5% of UK families switched to Ecover Washing Powder enough water could be saved to fill half a million Olympic swimming pools yearly.

Water way to go
Ecover has formed a partnership with WaterAid to support communities in rural Ethiopia. The projects will give 14,750 people long-term solutions to access safe water and sanitation. They’ll be supporting work in 11 villages in the Hintalo-Wajarat region of Ethiopia.

Price difference – worth the pennies to save the planet
Many of us are put off by the price of eco products, thinking only the super-rich can afford them. We compared Ecover washing-up liquid to one of
the leading brands and to the supermarkets’ own eco-ranges, with credit crunch-busting results.

Buying the larger, 1 litre bottle of Ecover is actually better value than both the leading brand and most supermarket own eco brands. The only competitor to beat Ecover 1 litre on price was Tesco Naturally, which is the cheapest overall.

You can save even more money by re-filling your empty bottles of Ecover washing up liquid (as well as laundry liquid, fabric conditioner and multi-surface cleaner).

Each bottle may be refilled up to 50 times, saving not only cash but the resources used to make the plastic. To find a store near you which participates in the refill scheme, go to:

words: ROB holdway | photographs: getty images, istock, shutterstock


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