My clean green epiphany
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
I’m not remotely ashamed to admit that I love to clean. The hum of the washing machine and converting tangled dirtiness into soft stacks of neatly folded clothing is my kind of happy. Some people have laundry liquids for whites and separate ones for colours, scented fabric conditioners, specialist silk and wool washes, even distilled lavender water to pour into deluxe steam irons. Not to forget fragrant polishes for wood, more for stainless steel and pretty microfibre cloths for glass. These are my people.
After all, as far as I’m concerned, one of the best ways to appreciate your home is to touch it. Through the gleam of shiny stainless steel and the sparkle of clear windows you can begin the all-important journey of emotionally engaging with your home. Putting my house in order feels like putting myself in order – it grants me solace. I choose to view it as a form of walking meditation. In other words, cleaning is the act of tending myself through the medium of my possessions. It acknowledges the importance of my home as my sanctuary and is my pathway to a state of mindful contentment.
It has been quite the revelation then to see me relinquish all my beloved fancy unguents for five fantastically mundane items: liquid soap, washing soda, citric acid, white vinegar and eco bleach (a plant-based oxidising whitener not to be confused with chlorine bleach). It all began two years ago when I was writing Happy Inside: How to Harness the Power of Home for Health and Happiness, a lifestyle guide based on my belief that your home environment is as fundamental to your wellbeing as good food and exercise. It is the third pillar for a balanced life. Albeit one often overlooked despite the following statistics: 1) We spend 90 per cent of our time indoors. 2) The average home is more polluted inside than a busy street corner outside due to the build-up of toxins.
These include pollutants such as the VOCs (volatile organic compounds) released by some household paints, MDF and new carpets (plus the adhesives used to fix them). Throw in domestic cleaning sprays, artificial air fresheners and perfume, the particles given off by paraffin wax-based candles and the nitrogen dioxide emitted by gas hobs, nitric oxide from wood burners, and then don’t forget pollen, mould, viruses, general dust, cigarette smoke or pet dander. It’s a situation that is exacerbated in the winter when the heating goes on and windows are rarely opened. According to the Royal College of Physicians in London, the passive inhalation of contaminated indoor air in Europe has been linked to 99,000 deaths a year. The quality of our indoor air is thus more important than ever, especially as society shifts towards increased working from home.
I’d thought that bleach was pretty anodyne stuff but inadvertently combine it with other cleaning products and the effect can be lethal. It can even make the highly toxic chlorine gas (used as a weapon in the first world war) if you mix it with ammonia, as found in your urine. Yet many happily tip it down the loo thinking they’re being hygienic.
The United Nations introduced the “Globally Harmonised System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals” – aka the hazard graphics displayed on the back of such products – in 2002. But do you even look at them? Check the ingredients? Or heed the recommendations to ventilate and wear gloves or eye protection as is often suggested in small print beneath those shouty symbols? Of course you don’t. No one does. Which is what the brands are banking on. These safety claxons are nothing more than an industry liability waiver, like the horrific warning pictures on cigarette boxes. Buy at your own peril, they simper, we’re being open about the dangers. Except, most people do not expect common household products to potentially increase their vulnerability to everything from headaches and allergies to chronic respiratory problems, diabetes and cancer. Think I’m being unduly alarmist? In 2019, Breast Cancer UK submitted a paper to UK Parliament on the daily health risks posed by the hormone-disrupting chemicals commonly found in cleaners and other products. At the same time, it published a list of chemicals to avoid on its website.
The thing is, we’re busy and if there’s a ready-made, inexpensive solution to our limescale, and it comes in a handy squirty bottle, then we’re sold. Add in a nice scent and we’re hooked. But in fact there are equally convenient alternatives (plant-derived citric acid) that do the job quicker, cheaper and contain absolutely nothing that requires PPE to use it.
In line with this, it behoves us to question our relationship with dirt. You don’t need a sterile toilet bowl, just a clean one. Unless you’re working on a building site, farm or underground, how dirty do your clothes really get? And why are so many of us convinced that “clean” smells exotic, like ylang ylang or frangipani flowers? Historically scent was used to mask odour, today it’s added to play on our fear of odour. To me, “clean” smells of nothing – like fresh air. Besides, most scented products and air fresheners are anything but the cleansing purifiers they profess to be. If it doesn’t explicitly state that a fragrance is plant-based, then it’s a synthetic byproduct of the petroleum industry. Air fumigators would be a more accurate description.
Not to forget that constantly bashing bacteria into submission with ever stronger agents claiming to kill 99.9 per cent of all known germs purportedly gives rise to antibiotic-resistant superbugs, something the World Health Organisation calls “a looming crisis in which common and treatable infections are becoming life-threatening”. Washing with soap and warm water works just as well, with no known side-effects to humans or fish. In fact, most bacteria are beneficial; our immune systems need a degree of dirt to make them strong.
No Scrubs: Michelle Ogundehin’s eight hero products for green cleaning
Limescale buster extraordinaire! One tablespoon dissolved in water in your kettle will have it looking like new. Likewise for clean taps. For your loo: sprinkle, leave 10 mins to soak, quick scrub – et voilà! Pristine bowls.
The workhorse of the #cleancleaning armoury. Use for everything from laundry and floor cleaning to making your own hand wash and shower gel. Be sure it’s plant-based though.
Aka soda crystals/sodium carbonate. Use to soften laundry water to “lift” dirt from clothes. Amazing as an overnight soak for residue-thick oven trays. Also ace for keeping drains clear, removing algae from paths and cleaning the oven. Wear gloves when handling.
Or sodium bicarbonate. Milder than washing soda. Use to deodorise and clean harder-to-rinse or more delicate surfaces, such as areas used by pets or children, food preparation surfaces, plus silver jewellery, aluminium, chrome and stainless steel. NB: baking powder is sodium bicarbonate plus a raising agent, so don’t pay a premium buying this from the cooking aisle!
Perfect for a general cleaning spray or window wash (one part vinegar to nine parts water, plus a squirt of liquid soap). Ensure your vinegar is pure; add lemon peel to neutralise the smell if desired. Great for pet urine stains or any residual odour too.
Brilliant for stain removal, even on coloured fabrics. Add 2tbsp to your whites wash to brighten. Use anywhere you might previously have used chlorine bleach.
Pure soap is made from vegetable oils or animal fats mixed with an alkaline solution. This process also produces glycerol (glycerin) that can either be retained as a moisturising agent or removed. Castile or Marseille soaps are pure olive oil and particularly mild, perfect for face-washing.
Eco Eggs use bio-ceramic beads to raise the PH of the water to be softer. They also include “biodegradable surfactants” to help to pull dirt and grease from the wash. No synthetic chemicals mean less wear and tear, so your clothes will last longer. As will your washing machine.
It’s a similar story if we look at mainstream laundry detergents: synthetic chemical cocktails designed to keep dirt suspended in water. In truth, your washing machine does most of the work. The detergent just helps it to be more efficient. But that sweet-smelling liquid also contains bleaching agents, enzymes, artificial fragrance, dye and other chemicals to make it all stick together, inhibit corrosion and create bubbles. All of which (plus the lint and microplastics shed from non-natural fibre clothing) flows into our sewers, ultimately contributing to the persistent bioaccumulative chemical waste destroying our aquatic ecosystem. In 2009, even Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) commissioned a report into reducing the environmental impact of clothes-washing, citing “eutrophication and other toxicity impacts due to washing detergents” as “significant”.
Add in the 150m bottles of Procter & Gamble’s Fairy Liquid used and flushed each year in the UK and the problem becomes clear. It may be good for dishes but it’s not so great for fishes. Although Fairy claims to be biodegradable, and complies with EU guidelines in this respect, those guidelines request only that a product degrade by 60 per cent in 28 days.
And if you think the water-treatment plants sort it all out, think again. Overwhelmed and ill-equipped to deal with growing populations as well as the rising chemical toxicity of our waste, not only can few facilities cope but they’re legally allowed to discharge raw sewage into the sea after heavy rainfall to avoid the system backing up. It’s a loophole that’s been routinely, and blatantly, exploited. According to the Environment Agency, untreated effluent was released into UK waterways more than 400,000 times (or more than three million hours) in 2020 alone.
To mitigate this, there’s been a lot of au courant brand eco speak. However, it mostly concerns the improved recyclability of packaging, or how concentrated laundry pods reduce emissions due to more efficient transportation. There’s been little heard about really green alternatives to lower water pollution. But change must come. A recent US class action lawsuit against SC Johnson, the owner of Method, touted as “future-friendly products designed to smell like sunshine and work like magic”, forced it to remove its claims to be non-toxic, and pay $2.25m to settle the consumers’ claim accordingly. Small change to them, but a greenwashing point has been made.
But here’s the good news. If you use good old-fashioned plant-based liquid soap and washing soda (sodium carbonate), the run-off is entirely pollutant-free! The soda naturally softens the water which helps the soap to clean. Your machine does the rest. I’ve been cheerfully laundering everything this way since my enlightenment. My clothes – colours, wool, delicates – have never been cleaner or softer. And that commercial softener? It contains emulsifiers (often derived from animal fat) and alcohol ethoxylates, both of which can increase fabric flammability, coating your clothes and cumulatively destroying the fibres. Besides, if you’ve softened your water with soda, it’s entirely unnecessary: tried, tested and personally vouched for.
Make no mistake, we are all products of our environment, so anything we use to clean ourselves or our homes ultimately ends up in our water, inadvertently ingested or inhaled. So, while we wait for the pharmaceutical behemoths to develop a conscience, or our governments to tighten lax legislation (don’t hold your breath, pun intended), I figured I’d clean up my own act first and revert to ingredients that have been safely used for centuries.
But perhaps most importantly, my pleasure in keeping my home clean has been heightened considerably by the idea that nothing I use knowingly contributes to pollution, inside or out. The next step? Becoming a zero-waste household. I’ve learnt that it’s all very well to recycle, but refusing, reducing and reusing is top of the eco tree. Thus far I’ve got a composter for food waste, a wormery for dog poo (who knew!), I buy all my fruit and vegetables loose to avoid single-use plastics, I’ve found my local refill stores, and tracked down where to properly recycle almost everything else. I’ve even discovered air-purifying household paints (Graphenstone). And I make my own general cleaning solution now (one part white vinegar to nine parts water with a squirt of liquid soap and a few drops of lavender oil). Good for windows as well! On this one, grandma really did know best.
And why am I doing all of this? As Shoukei Matsumoto, Zen Buddhist and author of A Monk’s Guide to a Clean House and Mind, puts it, “Life is a daily training ground, and we are each composed of the very actions we take in life. If you live carelessly, your mind will be soiled, but if you try to live conscientiously, it will slowly become pure again. If your heart is pure, the world looks brighter. If your world is bright, you can be kinder to others.”