A friend and I were talking the other day about how our mothers share a habit: When they’re cleaning, they use a copious amount of paper towels. Because they’re made from lower-quality paper fibers, paper towels are not recyclable, and although in some cases you can compost them, it’s probably not a good idea to add them to your compost pile if they’ve been sprayed with toxic cleaning products first.
Many of the people I know are a little more conscientious about using sustainable materials — employing reusable cleaning cloths instead of the rolls of paper towels, for instance. And when it comes to cleaning and de-cluttering this year, I’m going to go a few steps further and really think hard about ways I can reduce household waste and decrease my use of harmful chemicals.
Want to green your Spring cleaning, too? These tips will help you be more sustainable by repurposing things around the house as well as improving your indoor air quality to make your home a safer, and cleaner, place to be this Spring.
1. Use aluminum foil as a cleaning tool. While clean aluminum foil is recyclable, if it’s covered with food, grease, or baked-on gunk, it has to go in the trash. But first, make it earn its keep: Wad it up with the dirty stuff on the inside, and it can serve as a heavy-duty scrubber to get your grill grates spick and span and ready for the summer. A ball of foil can serve the same purpose for your oven rack.
2. Use natural soap to make homemade cleaning solutions. You’ve probably heard by now that white vinegar makes a versatile and nontoxic cleaning product. I’ve recently added a big (and cheap!) bottle of Dr. Bronner’s castile soap to my cleaning caddy. In various dilutions, alone or with vinegar, it works to clean everything from laundry to toilets to countertops. The company has a great sustainability message too: Using recycled packaging and regenerative organic agriculture practices, working towards zero waste, using solar energy, and recycling its greywater.
3. Make a homemade Swiffer. There’s no doubt that the Swiffer, a mop with a disposable cleaning head, is one of the biggest recent advances in cleaning products. But their convenience and effectiveness come at a cost: The Swiffer-brand cleaning solutions get low scores from the Environmental Working Group, and the removable pads aren’t recyclable or reusable. But if you already own a one of these mops, don’t trash it just yet. You can make reusable cleaning pads for it with an old fleece blanket or jacket. Coupled with your own homemade cleaning solution (made with the aforementioned natural soap or vinegar!) and you’ve got a much more eco-friendly setup.
4. Clean out old candle jars to reuse. I usually have a few poured-wax jar candles left over from attempts to give my winter-stuffy house some ambiance. With the oily wax inside, they’re not recyclable, but I plan to spend a little time this Spring to remove all the wax so I can recycle or reuse the jars.
5. Repurpose fireplace ashes. If you have a wood-burning fireplace you’re all too familiar with the onerous chore of removing all the ashes after you’ve lit the final fire of the season. But don’t throw those ashes away! Fireplace ashes are surprisingly useful for polishing silver, scrubbing soot from the fireplace door, or amending soil. Who knew?
6. Replace your HVAC air filter with a reusable one. My Spring cleaning to-do-list always involves heading down to the crawlspace with a fresh air filter for our HVAC system. The dust-caked old ones aren’t recyclable, but there’s good news: You can buy permanent air filters that can be washed and reused again and again!
7. Keep windows open when you clean. The EPA says that indoor air in homes, offices, and other buildings is often more polluted than the air outside. For this reason, I like keeping my doors and windows open, and even running my attic fan to circulate the fresh air, while I’m cleaning. This helps bring clean air into the house and get stale, potentially VOC-laden air out, especially if I’m using chemical cleaning products.
With a little thoughtfulness and ingenuity, we can all do our Spring cleaning without making more of a mess for the environment.