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Clean your house and your conscience part 2: environment and health

cleaning products

Photo Credit: Bambi WIllow via Compfight cc

Emma Lloyd from Good Environmental Choice Australia (GECA) discusses the impact of our cleaning products on the environment and our health, and looks at how we can ensure a safer, more sustainable clean. 

What do you use to keep your house sparkling clean?

Everyone has different priorities when they’re staring at an aisle full of cleaning solutions. Perhaps you go for the one that’s the best value for money, something with less nasty chemicals that could harm your family’s health, or an environmentally-friendly cleaner that has the lowest impact on the planet. Chances are you’ve found what works for you and simply purchase more of the same each time the bottle runs out.

However, it’s worth reconsidering what you use when you wipe over the bench tops or scrub the shower, since there are products that are both better for the environment AND better for human health.

Most of us don’t know exactly what’s in the products we use to clean our homes every day, such as general-purpose cleaners, laundry cleaning agents, and dishwashing detergents, nor the impact they have on our health and the wider environment. A quick glance at the front of the packaging tells us all we want to know about how well a product works and any special claims it makes (environmentally-friendly or otherwise.) When shopping we usually trust that the products we buy will leave us with a fresh and healthy home environment, free from dirt and pathogens – but is that really the case?

What should I look out for when choosing a cleaning product?

You probably know that many cleaning products contain a range of potentially harmful materials that impact our health. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) top the list – they give off fumes which can trigger allergies, asthma, and headaches. There’s also a vast amount of chemicals that bear Risk Phrases to declare that a substance may be a carcinogen or harmful to a developing foetus, for example. A Risk Phrase means that a product has been classified as hazardous. It’s rare for these hazards to be obvious to a consumer, even if they read the ingredients list on a product.

Another important factor to consider is whether a cleaning product contains palm oil or palm kernel oil. If it foams and suds, there’s a good chance it does. Palm oil and palm kernel oil are used across a range of supermarket products, from chocolate to shampoo. These oils have many desirable qualities, such as a stable shelf life and the ability to give cleaning products a creamy consistency. However, the production of palm oils can cause significant deforestation when it’s harvested unsustainably, wreaking havoc on the environment, devastating orang-utan populations, and displacing local communities.

Hazardous substances aren’t just limited to palm oils and VOCs. The discharge of nutrients such as phosphorous compounds, present either in the manufacturing process or in the cleaning products themselves, can cause algal blooms when they end up in waterways. Other long-lasting substances can be toxic to aquatic life in surface waters and streams. Fragrances and enzymes should be avoided when buying cleaning products, as they can cause a range of respiratory system problems. Also, it’s important to consider product packaging and manufacturing costs, which should ideally be as efficient and recyclable as possible at all stages across a product’s life cycle.

How can GECA help me choose?

Just as the considerations are starting to mount, a third-party eco-labelling program, such as the one run by Good Environmental Choice Australia, can help. Cleaning products that have been certified under GECA’s Cleaning Products Standard contain fewer harmful chemicals, have a minimised VOC content and only use sustainably sourced palm oils.

Understanding what issues are really important and deciphering what is on the packet can be difficult and GECA’s standard takes the hard work out of it.

Seeing that a product is GECA certified gives assurance to consumers that the product’s claims are real and that the product really is a better choice, not just for the environment but also for your health. Consumers can have confidence that the product has addressed all the important environmental and health issues relevant for the product – not just one or two.

Here’s what you can do if you’re concerned about the health and environmental impacts of cleaning products:

  • Check for products certified by GECA (or Environmental Choice NZ). Some products certified by GECA as at April 2014 are listed below. You can check the GECA web site for future certifications
  • If your favourite product is not certified but is making claims that it is environmentally OK, check its web site for details, ask question on its Facebook page, or ask them to consider backing up their claims third-party certification. You might be surprised at how willing many companies are to take extra steps towards boosting consumer confidence.

GECA Certified Cleaning Brands (as of April 2014)

These products or companies tick all of the boxes when it comes to being environmentally-preferable, safer for your health and ethically produced:

  • Healtheclean: All products are 100% naturally derived, biodegradable, non-toxic and free from hazardous chemicals. You’ll need to buy them online, rather than your local supermarket, and have them delivered right to your door.
  • Solo Pak Earth Renewable: These products also come in concentrated form, reducing the packaging required, and they’re a popular choice in preschools and childcare centres. Order directly from the manufacturer and they’ll deliver anywhere in Australia free of charge.
  • Jasol Australia: If you’re switching to greener cleaning products around the home, why not ask about what gets used at your workplace too? Jasol are just one of GECA’s licensees who make environmentally-preferable cleaning products for commercial applications, so you could get some dishwashing detergent for the office kitchen, or enquire about what cleaning products your building’s cleaning staff use.

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