When it comes to sustainable products, eco-friendly businesses (especially small ones) have made incredible steps forwards in recent years to endorse and offer consumers products that are not only good quality and beneficial for health, but that are also environmentally sustainable. From makeup to reusable bags or nappies, from feminine hygiene eco alternatives to oral care products, society has now the opportunity to embrace a different type of consumerism, better and kinder to our endangered planet.
However, when it comes to cleaning products, even after extensive research, we struggled to find a lot of alternatives that could truly be considered “eco-friendly”. When we bring the denomination “plastic-free cleaning products” into the equation, the range is even more limited. Nonetheless, we found that there is hope for people in Britain who want to embrace a zero-waste, no plastic lifestyle.
This is our guide for the best eco-friendly cleaning products in the UK, which includes cleaning tools such as sponges and brushes made of compostable and natural materials, as well as environmentally kind detergents and cleaning sprays among others, made with non-toxic ingredients and with minimal packaging. The two paradigms that link all these products are their non-toxicity as well as their reduced impact on the planet at the end of their life.
HOW IT ALL STARTED
When we started our journey to use less plastic in our house, one of the first things we did was to gather as much stuff as we could from every room, just to see how many plastic things we had in every drawer and cupboard, or how many chemically-packed products we had gotten accustomed to in our daily life. One of the places in the house that shocked us the most was definitely our kitchen. I still vividly remember standing together with Jason in the middle of the room, looking down at the pile of food packaging, plastic straws and disposable party cutlery, cling film rolls and plastic cups.
But what really shocked us was the stuff that had come out of the cabinet under the sink, where we keep all our detergents, cleaning sprays, sponges and clothes, dishwasher tablets and washing up liquids.
Not only everything was packaged in plastic, but when we started reading and researching their components, most of them were hard chemicals that sounded incredibly worrying, especially because of all the side effects they could potentially have on our health and the environment around us. So that’s when we decided there and then than change was needed in our house, and it was not just a matter of reducing plastic items but also to switch to much more natural, chemical-free products that were safe for the whole family.
ECO-FRIENDLY CLEANING TOOLS: HOW TO EMBRACE THE ECO SPONGES AND BRUSHES REVOLUTION.
One of the easiest, most effortless swaps to reduce plastic in our kitchen cleaning cabinet was to find eco-friendly alternatives to practical tools we already used and that unfortunately either came with plastic packaging or were made of plastic all together. One example above all? Sponges and dish brushes!
Commercially made synthetic sponges are usually made with polyurethane, which is a petroleum-based material, together with other materials such as chemical softeners, bleach, and dye. Basically, the sponges we had in the house were made from oil-based plastic ingredients, not very sustainable at all. The issue with this, especially with the polyurethane, is that while being manufactured, it relies on ozone-depleting hydrocarbons to blow the foam into shape. Also, polyurethane can produce formaldehyde and other irritants and can form cancer-causing dioxins when burnt into incinerators at the end of life (this is a common end to items who are thrown in the general rubbish bins). Cleaning brushes are not any better: they are usually manufactured with a plastic handle and nylon bristles. Because of the nature of combined plastics used, these are not always widely recyclable once they are too battered to continue using them, and they more often than not end up in landfills.
When we discovered that dishwashing brushes made of natural materials such as wood, coconut fibres, sisal fibres, loofahs etc, cause remarkably lower emissions than their plastic equivalents, and that their total climate impact is more than 75 % lower compared to the impact of plastic brushes, we decided to switch immediately. Among the types we like the most:
1. Dish brushes made with wood and coconut fibres.
Coconut fibre, also known as cour, is a natural material, specifically the wool-like fibre between the hard shell and the outer layer of a coconut. Is it widely used to make upholstery paddings for mattresses, door and floor mats etc, however its strong nature plus the fact that it can be used wet without retaining water makes it a great component for eco-friendly cleaning alternatives. The fibre is usually harvested when coconuts are fully ripe, and separated from the fruit. One of the best things about it is that it is completely biodegradable, unlike nylon bristles, so these brushes can be added to a home compost and they will biodegrade without any special treatment once they cannot be used any longer. We also found that due to the incredible strong nature of the natural bristles, they tend to last a long time, nearly as much as their plastic equivalents, making them a significant element to drive waste down in our kitchens.
There are various types out there, our very favourites are:
a. Round ones, slightly bent at an angle
Why we think they are totally worth it: They last for ages (we use them all the time so we know!!), plus they are particularly good to scrub sticky dirt that is hard to remove with a soft sponge. The round head allows to easily swipe it around edges and inside curved containers such as bowls and soup dishes among others. The slightly inclined shape of the bristled head also allows flexibility in usage, as it makes it practically perfect to clean most kitchen utensils, crockery and pans. It is made with a beech handle and the coconut fibres are entangled around a stainless steel wire, which can be removed at the end of life and easily recycled nationwide.
b. Thin long brushes, perfect for glasses and bottles
Why we think they are totally worth it: If you frequently use a reusable bottle, you know how important it is to keep it clean and germ-free. And if you need to clean the inside of a longer, thinner container, be it a vase, a glass or a jar, this is the perfect solution. Its long thin bristles, that can easily flexed into different angles, make it absolutely brilliant to reach even the cheekiest dirty spot. Again, fully compostable and recyclable.
2. The beautiful versatility of sisal fibres for all plan-based bristles
Sisal fibres are extracted from the sisal plant, which grows in very hot and dry climate and doesn’t require any type of pesticides to be grown. This obviously makes it a perfect eco-friendly material. Its very distinctive coarse and strong texture makes it incredibly long-lasting, as well as being very stretchy. One of its advantages is that it has high resistance to bacterial damage and to deterioration in water, so in our mind, it does make a fantastic material for eco-cleaning brushes. Our favourite is definitely this handy wooden one, and what makes it really special is that it has a removable, replaceable head, so once the fibres are too worn out to be used again, they can go straight in the compost, without the need to substitute the whole brush. It is definitely a great solution to reduce waste in the kitchen, and we use it constantly for all our greasy pots and pans!
Another great eco-scrubber is this pot scourer, made with all plant-based fibres and beech wood handle, not a sign of plastic in sight!
The idea of using sustainable sponges is not a new one. Both my grandmother and my mum used old rags and recycled pieces of cloth to clean the house throughout most of their lives.
This idea that we need something from the shop because it looks prettier or some home more efficient is a new trend, mostly influenced by effective branding and strategic marketing campaigns. When it came to us, we were already using kitchen towels made from old, worn-out sheets or shirts for cleaning: these are especially great for wiping windows and mirrors, as well as drying plates or getting rid of stains on wine glasses.
However, as most people do, we had a synthetic sponge for washing up (the usual yellow and green one, as seen in most household) which usually only lasted a couple of months before the scrubber was completely dirty and ineffective; then a flat spongy cloth to wipe tables, kitchen counters and the cooker, or to clean the oven, and a metal scrubber for the most heavy-duty cleaning. That not only had a monetary cost, but after we started being more conscious about waste, it really made us wonder why we needed all these different products. Was one sponge not enough? Now we usually only rely on a scrubber made of cotton and hessian fabric, which is the eco-friendly equivalent of the yellow and green scrubber we used to have, and loads of rags and kitchen towels. I never looked back and they are absolutely great to keep our house spotless without producing kilos of plastic waste every year!
SUSTAINABLE DETERGENTS, ECOFRIENDLY DISH WASHING SOAPS AND CLEANING SPRAYS.
Right, so changing brushes and sponges was probably the easiest thing, as there are quite a few eco-friendly options out there. However, when it came to cleaning products, things got a little bit more challenging. Truth is, there are not as many plastic-free options out there, which was a real surprise to see. We could find alternatives that at least were not toxic, chemical-free and cruelty-free (not tested on animals) but not many that didn’t come in plastic packaging. There were luckily a few exceptions:
1. WASHING UP SOAP BAR
We were very pleased to find this soap bar alternative that comes in a cardboard box, fully recyclable and compostable and has no plastic at all, plus it is only made of natural, vegan ingredients. The best way to use it is to wet it with water, then rub it on an eco-sponge or a sustainable dish brush. The trick is to rinse plates, glasses and pots very carefully using cold water after washing them, and let then air dry. b.
2. DIY WASHING UP LIQUID
Another alternative we found was to make our own liquid soap with SOAP NUTS. Here’s a recipe that will give you a nice quantity of dish-washing liquid, completely organic and without any plastic!
- Crush 100 grams of soap nut shells using a rolling pin or a garlic crusher.
- Put in a pot with 8 cups of water and bring to boil.
- Simmer for 20/30 minutes, this will allow the saponine to be released from the soapnuts and combine with water.
- Leave it overnight for better results, then sieve the soapnuts and use the liquid as a regular washing liquid.
However, when it came to sprays, floor detergents, all-purpose cleaning products etc, the situation was a lot different. We did find some brands that describe themselves not as eco-friendly, but as "ecological", meaning that they are kinder to the environment than comparable products.
What makes them a better alternative to chemically-packed solutions, is that they tend to be made from plant and mineral-based ingredients, which can biodegrade completely in a relatively short time and therefore present very little harm aquatic life. Yes, because we need to remember that all our products, through our sewage systems and then into our rivers, seas and oceans. So it is really imperative that we choose products that are not only plastic-free, but also free of harmful, toxic components. The fact that they come with plastic single-use bottles is not ideal to us, and we hope that soon there will be new options on the market to help with that, however for the time being if you want to buy one of these products, what we can suggest is to get them from a zero-waste shop, where you can bring your own used plastic bottle for a refill.
3. CLEANING PRODUCT BRANDS
The brands that seem to be most commonly available in shops that sell refilling cleaning products are:
- Ecover: The brand has a big range of washing up, dishwasher and laundry products. You can refill their cleaning products at ‘refill stations’ while the bottles can be used more than 50 times.
- Nu-Eco offers natural, environmentally friendly cleaning products which are also 100% vegan, Their cleaning products are biodegradable and kind to the environment as specially formulated using natural ingredients, making them safe to use and can be used on drains as they do not contaminate marine life.
- Eco-D offers naturally-derived alternatives that would clean safely and effectively without harming people or the environment. All their products are made in their factory in the UK.
Truth is, even though we find all these products to be going in the right direction and they may help bring more ecological options available to a wider public, we still believe whenever possible, it’s always best to choose products that also use as little single-use plastic as possible.
One solution? Just make your own products! From DIY all-purpose detergent to homemade toilet bombs, most of these methods are not only as effective as their chemical counterpart but will have a few advantages in the long run: your kitchen cabinet will gain a lot more space without all those single-purpose products, you will end up saving money in the long run as most of the ingredients needed tend to be very cheap and last for a long time, you won’t be exposing your house, and therefore your health to toxic-full components, and lastly but most importantly, you will dramatically reduce your single-use plastic waste from your household? What’s not to like?
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