Baking soda, lemon and scrub brush

How to clean your home the eco-friendly way

Tired of all the waste associated with cleaning your home? Create a zero waste cleaning routine to clean your home naturally — and cheaply! — with these eco-friendly cleaning products and tips.

No matter how frequently we do a deep cleaning of our house, with a household of four plus a cat in 1200 square feet, somehow the crumbs, spills, and general grime seem to build up fast. While the clutter is inevitable, I try to maintain a clean(ish) home as much as I can.

Toddler hands wiping flour on a counter top
Ah, the joys of keeping your home clean with small children

For many, the easiest option is to use a spray bottle of some gnarly all-purpose cleaner (that comes in a plastic bottle) and paper towels. However, those create a lot of extra unnecessary waste. And while the purpose of this blog isn’t to focus on how bad many cleaners are for your health, a lot of commercial products include artificial chemicals I don’t feel comfortable using with my kids around.

(Truthfully, I don’t feel comfortable being around them myself.)

The alternatives are green cleaning products that are better for the environment that cut down on unnecessary waste and that use naturally-derived ingredients.

Believe me, I get the struggle that comes with meeting the needs of your family while trying to be eco-friendly and keep your house clean.

When your toddler has a massive blowout and you’re doing everything you can to prevent your home from becoming a hazardous waste zone, the last thing on your mind is being environmentally-friendly. But for the other 95% of the time when you’re aren’t chasing a naked toddler, here are some simple switches you can make it.

(And like so many of the ideas you’ll find on the blog, in the long run they’ll also save you money!)

Tips for eco-friendly cleaning

This post contains some affiliate links – you can read my full disclosure here and learn more about why I include product recommendations since my number one recommendation is to get things used.

Ditch the paper towels

Instead of one-time use paper towels, keep a stash of worn or beat up clothes that are cut up into rags. (Think of your kids’ clothes in which the stains are set in.) Throw them in the hamper when you’re done using them.

Alternatively, or store them in a separate reusable pail liner or wet bag if you don’t want it to mix with your regular laundry. Stick the whole thing in the laundry when it’s full.

If you feel compelled to use brand new towels, I really like these super absorbent Swedish dishcloths, which can be cleaned in the washing machine or the dishwasher and have lasted us for several years.

If quitting disposable paper towel cold turkey makes you break out in a cold sweat, opt for 100% chlorine recycled paper towels, such as these ones by Seventh Generation. (Side-bar: Seventh Generation is owned by Unilever, which has been accused of being complicit in illegal rainforest destruction due to the demand for palm oil in many of their subsidiary’s products. Since then, Unilever has been working with local governments to reduce deforestation.)

Use sponges from naturally-derived materials

A lot of sponges are made from synthetic materials that, you guessed it, aren’t good for the environment.

I currently use the Full Circle Suds Up Soap Dispensing Dish Brush since it came with my monthly MightyFix one month. The replacement heads are made from recycled plastic and the handle is made from bamboo. The heads last a long time for us (I’d say at least a year), but it probably would not have been my first choice. I also just put dish soap directly on the sponge since I didn’t feel like the built-in dispense worked well.

In general, though, Full Circle makes great cleaning products and are committed to sustainability. Plus, they are a Certified B corporation, which are “businesses that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose”.

For tougher cleaner jobs that need extra scouring, I’m a huge fan of Spaghetti sponges, which are made from peach pits and 100% cotton fabric and comes in a 100% recycled paper box (no plastic packaging!).

We also use a round bottle brush that granted, is made from plastic, but I’ve had it for 5+ years (periodically I soak it in white vinegar — fingers cross that gets it cleaned!)

Make your own all-purpose cleaner

Making a homemade all-purpose cleaner is easier than you think and doesn’t require a Ph.D. in chemistry.

Because of its acidity, distilled white vinegar is a cheap and eco-friendly way to clean (most) of your house. You can buy a big container at the grocery or drugstore for a few dollars. I usually make a mixture of it with half water, half vinegar, and a couple of drops of essential oils in a big glass spray bottle. I like lavender because of the scent, and from what I understand, citrus essential oils can help to kill some germs.

Doesn’t matter the brand, this stuff is magic for eco-friendly cleaning! (Image by Mike Mozart)

Nature’s Nurture Blog has a great list of nontoxic DIY cleaning recipes (which are also environmentally friendly).

Just be aware that vinegar isn’t good for all surfaces, such as natural stone and wood, and it won’t kill off all bacteria. (So when norovirus inevitably invades your household, you might want to opt for chlorine which we otherwise avoid using.)

If you don’t want to make your own, I really like the Meliora all-purpose home cleaner. It comes in a reusable glass bottle and then you buy the refillable soap flakes that comes in a cardboard and steel canister. (The larger size makes 18 bottles, which lasts us probably over a year.) Just add in the flakes with warm bottle in the glass bottle — so easy!)

Cleaning your dishes

It might seem counter-intuitive, but using your dishwasher is more energy-efficient than handwashing. Just don’t pre-rinse your dishes — simply scrape your chunks of food into your compost bin if you have one and stick them in the dishwasher. Make sure to run your dishwasher when it’s full.

We currently use the Seventh Generation detergent powder for our dishwasher that comes in a cardboard box (and has an A rating by EWG) and their natural dish liquid. The latter does admittedly come in a plastic container, but we bought a case of them a few years ago so we’re just going through our supply and then I will explore other options. Both work great!

While it’s unclear if green cleaners are actually better for the environment, I do like that Seventh Generation is a B Corp, they use recycled packaging that is recyclable, and they’re transparent about their ingredients. (And, as I mentioned their parent company, Unilever, seems to be working toward more environmentally-friendly practices.)

If you are washing anything by hand, here are some tips to help you reduce your water waste:

  • Scrape food of from your dishes immediately
  • Clean them off as soon as you can before the food dries (easier said than done with young kids!)
  • Instead of washing things one at a time and keeping the water running the entire time, scrub grime off a bunch of dishes, pots, etc. with the water off and then run the water only when you’re ready to rinse them off
  • I also just read a great tip in the book Zero Waste Home about using a tub of water to soak or rinse your dishes instead of running water to rinse them off.

Washing your hands

We make own foaming handwash using Dr. Bronner’s unscented Castille baby soap. I haven’t fully explored the power of Castille soap, but in general, I really like Dr. Bronner’s products (including their soap bars). Plus they’re a company I want to support — they’re a Certified B Corp that cares about environmental and social issues and don’t pay their top executives more than five times more than their lowest-paid employees.

Alternatively, you could use a bar of soap to avoid all the extra work (and the need to buy a plastic jug of Castille soap). I just personally can’t stand how bar soaps at bathroom sinks seem to get.

The bottom line is you want to avoid the single-use pumps of handsoap that you use once and toss.

Freshening the air

Don’t even get me started on all the nasty synthetic chemicals in those room sprays and plug-in air “fresheners”. Obviously, there are times you need to freshen up the air (hello, stinky diapers!). We make our own room spray with plain old tap water mixed with a few drops of essential oils (I personally prefer lavender oil or something citrusy) in a glass spray bottle. You could also mix in alcohol such as Vodka or witch hazel to help preserve the spray and to help the water and the essential oils mix together.

Field of daisies
Get your home smelling as fresh as a field of daisies (Photo by Ian Sane)

My friend, Padma, from Harmony & Vitality, recently made me a lovely home freshener with peppermint, lavender, and Stress Away essential oils from Young Living.

Try spraying it in the toilet bowl before you go for an added layer of air protection. Also, opening a window for a few minutes can do wonders. Obviously, you don’t want to do it for too long in the cold winter months because then you’re wasting energy heating your house.

Deodorizing surfaces

I like to start my day doing yoga in my living room. (Ok, realistically happens once every other week except in January when I’m in New Year’s resolution mode and do Yoga with Adrienne’s yoga 30-day challenge, which of course tapers off as the month goes on.) Periodically I notice that the rug starts to smell like feet.

Bare feet propped up on a table
Nobody wants their rug to smell like these! (Photo by bark)

Pee-yoo!

A little sprinkle of baking soda, either on its own or mixed with your favorite essential oil, can do wonders. Let it sit on the surface for about 15 minutes and then vacuum it up.

Also, we recently had the joy of using a steam cleaner for the first time to clean up our couch which had gotten quite gross over the years. We rented it from Home Depot and my husband only used water to clean it up and it looked so much better after.

Just one last note before your make the switch to more eco-friendly cleaning products for your home. I recommend using up what you currently have, or at the very least, give it away.

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