Guide to Greywater-Compatible Cleaning Products

Wastewater that is discharged to the greywater system ends up in the garden soil and can either be beneficial or harmful to soil, water systems, and plant life. A common problem with improper use of greywater systems is salt build up in the soil which is hard to remedy and will negatively affect plant health. Toxic discharge, such as paints, hair dyes, or harsh cleaners, should never enter the greywater system, and should instead be routed through the municipal sewer. These substances can not only kill plants, they can also kill soil life and water life and persistently remain in soil. The greywater system should have a three-way valve, which allows wastewater to be routed back through the sewer as needed.

Note: water from the kitchen sink and toilet are considered blackwater, not greywater, and should not be recycled in the yard, but should be sent through the sewer system. Shower and bathtub water, however, are considered greywater, so greywater-friendly cleaning products should be used for cleaning shower and tub.

The effect of certain cleaning product ingredients depends in part on what type of greywater system is in place. If the greywater is going into the soil through a mulch basin (“terrestrial”), Nitrogen (N) and Phosphorus (P) ingredients are not a problem and in fact end up as soil nutrients. This is the case for the “laundry-to-landscape” type system, which is allowed in Berkeley without a permit. If the greywater is passing through a freshwater wetland (“aquatic”), however, N + P can lead to harmful algae growth and should be avoided. Conversely, Sodium (Na) is much more harmful to soil health than it is to a wetland system. A detailed chart of these variables can be found in Art Ludwig’s book Create an Oasis with Greywater.

Seek out cleaning products which are “biocompatible” or “biodegradable”.

Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P), Potassium (K), and Sulfur (S) are okay for greywater going directly into the soil / mulch basin.

Ingredients to Avoid:

  • boron/borax (toxic to plants)
  • sodium and ingredients with the word “sodium” in them*
  • chlorine bleach (acceptable alternative: hydrogen peroxide)
  • sodium perborate
  • sodium trypochlorite
  • peroxygen
  • petroleum distillate
  • alkylbenzene
  • water softeners (contain sodium chloride or potassium chloride)
  • anti-bacterial soaps & cleaners
  • “whiteners”, “softeners”
  • enzymes (enzymes in biological washing powders break down protein or fat stains on clothes)
  • titanium oxide
  • chromium oxide
  • artificial colors; FD&C colors
  • synthetic fragrance
  • artificial preservatives
  • no toxic waste down the drain!!

*Note: Rainfall can help reduce salt build-up in soil, but we get relatively little rain in the San Francisco Bay Area, so it is advised to keep sodium out of greywater whenever possible.

Tip: liquid soaps tend to contain less sodium than powdered soaps — lean toward liquid laundry products.

Here are some examples of more- and less-suitable cleaning products for use with greywater systems (many available at Ecology Center store, Berkeley Bowl stores, other natural grocery stores):

1. Laundry Detergents — Liquid:

Recommended:

  • Oasis laundry liquid
  • Bio Pac Laundry Liquid
  • Biokleen Laundry Liquid
  • LifeTree Laundry Liquid
  • Ecover Laundry Wash (some salt)
  • Mountain Green Laundry Detergent
  • Vaska Herbatergent

Limit:

  • Lullwater Soap Nuts Seventh Generation (enzymes)
  • Citra Suds (sodium chloride)
  • Planet (salt, sodium carbonate/washing soda)

Avoid:

  • Tide (enzymes +???)**;
  • All (perfume, brightening agent, colorant, +?);
  • Arm & Hammer (baking soda, water softener, optical brightener, +?);
  • Woolite (?);
  • Ivory Snow (enzymes +?)

**Note: Question marks indicate that these products do not list all of their ingredients on their labels. This is a common practice with most of the major conventional brands. It may be safe to assume that many of them contain artificial colors and scents, among other things. Avoid products that do not list ingredients!

Other Laundry Products:

Avoid:

  • Clorox (chlorine bleach)
  • Borax

Limit:

  • Biokleen Bac Out (sodium percarbonate, enzymes)
  • Biokleen Oxygen Bleach Plus (sodium sulfate)

2. Body Soaps & Shampoos:

Recommended:

  • Oasis dishwash/all-purpose cleaner for handwashing dishes, body & shampoo
  • Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps (liquid)
  • Aubrey Organics Shampoos

Limit:

  • Kirk’s Castile bar soap (may have some sodium)

Avoid:

  • Dial liquid handsoap (sodium laureth sulfate, sodium chloride, antibacterial agent, cocamidopropyl betaine (synthetic surfactant), +?)

Note: The Skin Deep database can help you find out what chemicals are in your body & beauty products.

3. Household Cleaners / Dish Soap / All Purpose Liquid Cleaner:

Recommended:

  • Oasis dishwash/all-purpose cleaner for handwashing dishes, body & shampoo
  • Ecos: Creamy Cleanser; Parsley Plus; Furniture Polish; Window Kleener; Floor Kleener; Carpet Shampoo

Limit:

  • Bon Ami (it is biodegradable and has no perfumes, dyes, chlorine, or fragrance, but does contain sodium carbonate)
  • Ecos: Shower Kleener (sodium gluconate, sodium citrate)
  • Dr. Bronners: Sal Suds (sodium laurel sulfate)
  • Citra Dish (sodium chloride)
  • Ecover Dishwashing Liquid (sodium laureth sulfate, sodium chloride)

Avoid:

  • Ajax (sodium carbonate, bleach, fragrance, color);
  • Comet (bleach, +?);
  • Ajax (?);
  • Ivory (?);
  • Palmolive (?);
  • Joy (?);
  • Dawn (?)

Further Reading: