Getting Clean the Green Way

Think twice about what goes down the drain

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I haven’t posted a Smackdown in weeks because, well, I was silenced by self-loathing after two months of intensive, carbon-emitting air travel. The good news is, the travel spree seems to have tapered off, which means I can go easy on the self-flagellating and carbon-offset buying and focus on actions that do some concrete good.

A couple weeks ago, traces of perchlorinate, or “perc”—a highly toxic dry-cleaning chemical— were found in the water supply in Queens, near my apartment. Thoroughly creeped out by this, I did a little research and found a “green” clothes-cleaning shop that I now use instead of my old dry cleaner and laundromat. It eschews perc in favor of natural products made by Ecover for both delicates and everyday laundry, and they even wash in cold water to save energy.

Now, I know what you might be thinking: Soap is the least of our environmental worries, right? Well, not really. Anything you use to clean eventually ends up in the water supply, and most products contain phosphates that are toxic to aquatic life—particularly the plants and tiny phytoplankton that marine animals eat. Growing up in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, I was made acutely aware of that fact through public-service announcements and in-school environmental programs. Even the storm drains were marked “Chesapeake Bay drainage,” to remind you that anything you poured down there was going to wash into the feeding grounds for your striped bass and oyster-on-the-half-shell dinner.

In New York, people don’t really seem to have embraced the “Save the Bay” ethos. The Hudson is full of PCBs from decades of industrial dumping, Newtown Creek is the site of one of the country’s most toxic sewage-treatment centers, the East River is full of… well, Jimmy Hoffa’s body… you get my drift. These things take time for large communities of people to learn, but sometimes the best we can do is try to be models of good behavior.

So I was pretty psyched about finding a better way to do my laundry, but I was also inspired to make sure I hadn’t slipped into any bad habits with the other household chemicals in my apartment. I don’t have a yard, so there are no fertilizers or pesticides to contend with (although if there were, I’d be using compost and Dr. Bronner’s biodegradable soap to, respectively, enhance the soil and chase away creepy crawlies). The main sources of chemical pollution in my apartment (apart from the paint VOCs that were unfortunately emitting before I got there) are the products that clean my surfaces, clothes and self.

I know all kinds of hippy ways to clean using vinegar and vegetable oil and so forth, which you can learn more about here, but the best-smelling, most convenient products I’ve found are from Mrs. Meyer’s. Those products—including floor cleaners, toilet-bowl cleaners and surface sprays—are made from natural, biodegradable compounds, come in recyclable containers, and smell delicious. All you have to do is spray some on a reusable rag or natural sponge, and you’re in business. What other green cleaning tricks do folks out there know? Tell me in the comments section. —Megan Miller