Ask The Eco Team

Dear Eco Team,
Can you compare so-called “green” cleaning products with conventional ones? I live in an urban area and wonder if phosphates are filtered out at sewage treatment. Also, many products that do not advertise themselves as green have removed phosphate. Is the manufacture of green cleaning products safer and gentler on the environment? Is plastic or paperboard better packaging? And is concentrated a better choice because it is less freight to haul? (It’s easier to fit on my bike rack, too.) So many questions. Hope you can answer some in your next column. Thanks for all the work you do.
Sincerely, Eliza Young

Dear Eliza,
The best way to beat the cost of both green and conventional cleaning products is to make your own. Effective and healthy bathroom and kitchen cleaners are simple to make and will save you lots of money. Even the cheapest conventional brands lose in a price comparison. The Ecology Center has a fact sheet available at with recipes for all-purpose cleaners. An even more detailed resource is Better Basics for the Home by Annie Berthold-Bond. This book is loaded with recipes, from anti-mold sprays made from tea tree oil or borax, to stain removers using vinegar and other common kitchen items.

You raise important questions. Let’s start with phosphates. Phosphates discharged into a marine environment act as a fertilizer resulting in the overgrowth of algae and the die-off of fish and other organisms. In an instance of effective and valuable governmental regulation, phosphates were phased out of laundry detergents by law back in the ‘90s. However, many dishwasher detergents still contain phosphates.

Sewage treatment plants struggle with the removal of phosphates. Some don’t do it adequately and release unneutralized water to rivers and waterways, contributing phosphates as well as a host of other chemicals that they aren’t able to remove. How phosphates are being treated in your region depends upon your local water treatment plant and agency. The bottom line? Don’t use a conventional dishwasher machine detergent, because most likely it contains phosphates. Green brands that state they don’t contain phosphates are the best choice.

Now we come to the big question: how to determine if a cleaning product is good for the environment and healthy to use. Most products contain petroleum-based ingredients—even many offered as “green.” Petroleum-based synthetic ingredients pose health hazards for the environment, workers who produce the products, and you, the user, including allergy, rashes, asthma, breathing difficulties, and in the case of the nastier chemicals, endocrine disruption, and cancer. (The Washington Toxics Coalition publishes a good and comprehensive fact sheet on its Web site:

Choosing eco-friendly and healthy cleaning products

  • Be sure the product doesn’t contain chlorine, artificial fragrances or fragrances that include pthalates, phosphates, or triclosan. The Green Guide has helpful articles that list other ingredients to avoid, and their alternatives. Oven cleaners, drain cleaners, and toilet bowl cleaners are especially apt to contain harmful ingredients.
  • Stay away from “nonionic surfactants.” This often refers to alkyl phenoxy ethanols and nonylphenol ethoxylates, which break down into toxins that affect aquatic life as well as human health. They are endocrine disruptors, difficult to remove in wastewater treatment, and have been linked to cancer. For more information, Seventh Generation cleaning products provides a number of good, unbiased articles on its Web site: Do choose products with all plant-based ingredients rather than petrochemical ingredients.
  • Look for products that disclose ingredients on their labels. Companies are required to provide a Materials Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) upon request that discloses the active ingredients in the product, but they don’t have to disclose anything considered a trade secret, including pthalates and other high-impact chemicals. Reputable green companies will label their bottles rather than make you place an information request to receive that basic information.
  • Understand labeling terms. Products labeled “Danger” and “Poison” are most hazardous; “Warning” moderately hazardous; “Caution” slightly toxic. General terms such as “natural” and “ecologically friendly” can be misleading. There are a lot of companies trying to position their products as green when they aren’t. Specific terms such as “no phosphates” and “no chlorine” are more meaningful.
  • Buy in bulk, buy concentrates, buy powder over liquid. Powder is more efficient to ship, uses less water, and is usually packaged in recyclable paper. Choose products in packaging that’s recyclable in your area, and choose packaging with recycled content.
  • Look for bleach alternatives with either hydrogen peroxide or sodium percarbonate, an eco-friendly mixture of washing soda and hydrogen peroxide. Chlorine releases organochlorines in waterways and creates dioxin, one of the most toxic and persistent substances on earth. Definitely use oxygen bleaches instead. They’re effective and available for laundry and other household cleaning purposes.
  • Choose products that are biodegradable and that label how long it takes for the substances to break down. Most chemicals biodegrade eventually but can remain toxic for eons. “Biodegradable in three days” is a label to choose.

About Disinfecting

A University of Michigan study found that washing hands with soap and water is as effective against bacteria as using anti-bacterial products. In a 2007 study conducted by the Environmental Working Group, triclosan, a common ingredient in anti-bacterial soaps that can also cause hormone disruption, was found to be prevalent in wastewater samples being discharged into the San Francisco Bay.

The Green Guide recommends using hydrogen peroxide and vinegar, both of which serve as effective disinfectants, in the kitchen to avoid food-borne illness. Says the guide. “According to a study at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, a safe way to get rid of Salmonella, Shigella, and E. coli bacteria is a combination of three percent hydrogen peroxide (the same strength you find at the drugstore) and undiluted white or apple cider vinegar. Put the two in separate spray bottles and spray one immediately after the other. You can spray it directly on fruits and vegetables and also on surfaces such as cutting boards and countertops.” For disinfecting in the bathroom, choose products with hydrogen peroxide. You can also make your own mixtures with recipes such as this all-purpose disinfecting cleaner: mix 2 teaspoons borax, 4 tablespoons vinegar, 1/4 teaspoon liquid castille soap, and 3 cups hot water.

So the next time you’re ready to scrub down the house, get yourself some plant-based ingredients, strap them on to your bike, bring them home, and try out some great recipes!

The Eco Team dispenses tips like these at the Ecology Center’s information line (510) 548-2220×223. Send questions to

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