How do conventional cleaning products affect the environment?

Sep 18 2020Sharon

How do conventional cleaning products affect the environment?

Have you ever seen this symbol on any of your cleaning products? The answer, unfortunately, is probably yes. But what does it mean, and why is it a problem? Basically, it means the product contains chemicals that are hazardous to the environment:

"Toxic to aquatic organisms and may cause long lasting effects in the environment. Avoid release to the environment."

But really, how can you prevent these chemicals from being released into the environment? We doubt you’re going to pour a bottle of bleach into your local river, but doesn’t nearly every cleaning product we use end up down our drains at some point or another? Bleach is flushed down the toilet after cleaning, mop buckets of floor cleaner are poured down the drain, even cloths containing all-purpose cleaner or window cleaner are usually rinsed in the sink. This means they will inevitably end up in our water systems, where they can then leach into nearby soil, rivers, lakes and eventually the ocean. Once there, they can cause all kinds of damage to the environment!

Here at Jan de Vries we think these conventional cleaners are a serious problem, so today I’m looking at what the environmental impact of these products is, and what alternatives are available.

Non-biodegradable ingredients

Many conventional cleaners include ingredients that are non-biodegradable – in other words they cannot naturally breakdown once leaked into the environment. This makes it really easy for them to enter our food chain! Once leached into soil they might be absorbed by plants, or they could leak into rivers and oceans where they are eaten by small plankton, which are in turn eaten by small fish, which are then eaten by larger fish like tuna and salmon – the kind that we eat! Nasty stuff.

Algal blooms

Algal blooms occur when ammonia and phosphates leak into waterways such as rivers and lakes. These chemicals act as a fertilizer, causing a sudden growth of algae in the water. This doesn’t sound that bad, but it has disastrous long-term effects!

The mass of algae rapidly consumes oxygen from the water, leaving none behind for fish and other aquatic organisms. When this algae dies, it decays and uses up even more oxygen! As a result, huge numbers of fish, plants and other aquatic organisms die off and also begin to decay – creating water that is highly toxic. Plus, it means there’s no food left for local birds and wildlife!

Ammonia is typically found in window cleaner, all-purpose cleaner, oven cleaner and toilet cleaners. Phosphates can be found in almost any cleaning product!

Plastic Packaging

I’m sure you’ve all seen the recent news reports about the most plastic-polluted beach in the world – on an uninhabited island in the South Pacific! How did so much plastic end up on an island that nobody actually lives on? Well, the island lies in the middle of an ocean current that gathers debris from around the world and circulates it around the Pacific Ocean – so that plastic bottle you just threw out might one day be carried to an island thousands of miles away!

The problem with household cleaners is that they tend to be almost exclusively packed in plastic, with only the occasional cardboard alternative. While plastic usually doesn’t biodegrade, it does break down into smaller and smaller pieces – pieces which can then be eaten by birds, small animals and fish. Again, this can end up in our own food chain! This quote from Clean Water Action might just shock you...

"In 2010, a California grey whale washed up dead on the shores of the Puget Sound. Autopsies indicated that its stomach contained a pair of pants and a golf ball, more than 20 plastic bags, small towels, duct tape and surgical gloves."

As well as endangering animal and fish, plastic also emits toxins such as BPA, benzene, methane and VOCs when exposed to sunlight – which is why it isn’t recommended to drink from the same bottle of water for too long. These chemicals then leak into the oceans and air, causing even more pollution.

What are the alternatives to harmful cleaning products?

Don’t despair, this doesn’t mean you have to give up cleaning your home forever! There are actually lots of fantastic green cleaning brands that help you to keep your home clean and safe, without harming the environment. One of our absolute favourites here at Jan de Vries is Ecover. They offer entirely plant and mineral based cleaning products, which are non-toxic, phosphate-free, biodegradable and cruelty free!  They provide everything from laundry detergents and fabric conditioners, to toilet cleaner, multi-purpose spray, oven cleaner and washing-up liquid.

When it comes to plastic waste, Ecover are truly a pioneering brand! Their plastic packaging is a blend of 75% plantplastic – made from, would you believe it, sugar cane – and 25% recycled plastic. This not only means they don’t contribute to the creation of yet more plastic, but they help to make use of the plastic waste created by other brands and consumers. When you’re finished with them, these plastic containers can be recycled again!