12 April 2016


What has been bugging me for a long time is this question:

Is replacing kitchen paper towels with fabric ones, which have to be washed in potentially harmful chemicals a good trade-off?

I don't think going for no landfill waste means anything if we don't think about broader environment impact our choice makes. What's the point in not dumping one plastic bag into my bin if I kill several trees in the process?!


Let me focus on washing first, and there is still a lot to cover.


There is a fascinating article on the role of detergent phosphate in eutrophication. As complicated as it sounds it has been explained here how important it is that we use non-phosphate detergents. The abundance of phosphate causes much quicker degradation of natural lakes (that process is called eutrophication). And even though the article speaks about American government it applies to all of us.


There's also the bio vs. non-bio war as well. Just to give some background: Bio washing detergents are those who in addition to "standard" chemicals also contain some enzymes. Some people claim these can cause skin irritation; some say there is no proof. And as objective as one may be I will say: come on, if even makers of these products, wanting to be on the safe side, advertise only non-bio detergents as suitable for babies, then they are not 100% sure if bio is indeed as benign as they claim it to be.
I've also heard from washing machine specialists that using non-bio detergents is safer for them and prolongs their life. Which pretty much means these enzymes are not safe for large kitchen appliances, and it is not unwise to assume that they would, therefore, be not safe for the much more delicate natural environment.

So at this point I know that if I opt from a detergent as opposed to paper towels, it should be phosphate free, coming in a recyclable container and be non-bio.

General washing rules

UK's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has ordered a research into reducing the environmental impact of clothes cleaning in 2009. Pretty informative to read. Covers matters such as line drying, for example. Yes, it is actually quite an important issue, because not drying in tumble dryers or even at home, when the weather is nice, is wasting natural resources used to generate energy. Pretty obvious, but still who can admit thinking of such things 100% of the time?

This report is actually quite insightful, because when it says washing in less than 30 degrees would save UK energy it also clearly states that bleaching doesn't work well in lower temperatures.
And so on. It is a very informative read. But let's look at just two points made:

OptionCurrent statusBenefit or savingTrade-offConclusion
Low temperature washingApproximately 17 percent of UK households washed at 30°C in 2007, compared to only 2 percent of households in their 2002 and the average UK washing temperature across all households has decreased from 43.5°C to 40.2°CIf all wash cycles were reduced by 10°C, an energy consumption saving of 15 percent would be achieved and if all consumers washed at 30°C rather than 40°C, a energy consumption saving of 12 percent would be achieved (approximately 0.5 TWh per annum) Low-temperature detergents perform well across a range of environmental indicatorsOne risk is that biofilms may develop within the appliance if routine higher-temperature servicing of the appliance is not established, , but the effects of this servicing would not be significant Another risk is that poor bleaching/cleaning effect may affect washing performance at low temperatureThe trend toward washing at 30°C should be driven by awareness raising and detergent labelling
Detergent form and dosingDevelopment of more concentrated detergents and detergents that are effective at low temperature has reduced their environmental impacts and enabled reduction of the impacts of clothes washingCompact powders and concentrated liquids have been shown to be less impacting across a range of environmental indicators (but results are drawn from a single study, so caution needs to be taken when drawing conclusions)Compact powders may be harder to dose correctly than regular powderPromote further development of concentrated detergent formulations Raise awareness of dosing accuracy issues (both over and under-dosing)

all of this looks fine, but is not quantitative!

Even when they go to more details, they only state that "The research has shown that low-temperature detergents have no significantly higher environmental impacts than conventional formulations, even when used at the same temperature, and perform better than regular formulations in across many indicators."

Good. But still not perfect, because I am not able to say if it will be better for the environment than sending paper towels into landfill.


So that got me thinking about vinegar. Yes, you must have heard of it as a cleaning agent. Our grandmothers used it, it kills more bacteria than generic detergent and so on. But is it true? And what is the impact of using vinegar en-masse on the environment?

There are two sides to this problem: pre-use and post-use impact.

What I mean is:

  1. How damaging to the environment is the process of creating vinegar before it even reaches my house do that I can use it?
  2. How much will vinegar harm the environment after I have discarded what's left after cleaning?
On the first point, there is a good piece on this blog.
And it pretty much boils down to the fact that vinegar can be either made from natural ingredients via the process of fermentation or by dissolving acetic acid created synthetically.
And as always natural processes are better for the environment, but less efficient financially, so nowadays naturally fermented vinegar makes up for less than 10% of global production (according to Wikipedia).
But I can tell that vinegar for cleaning purposes doesn't have to be distilled. Doesn't even have to be white, although using balsamic would be a bit expensive ;)
I go for white wine vinegar. And guess what? Some time ago I also learned that towels when washed in regular detergents or too much of them will become rough. And what helps is adding vinegar to washing. Now this is funny, but I no longer need a lot of detergent and no nasty whiteners either.

Just pour some vinegar into the washing compartment and some into the conditioning one. Sorted.

But how about the post-use environmental impact?

Now this is quite clear: vinegar is acid. And in high concentration, it is harmful to animals and plants.

But. Ordinary vinegar usually contains around 1% - 5% of acid. Better than that: you don't need 5% to clean effectively.

And also "Acetic acid degrades rapidly to harmless substances in the environment" according to Australian Department of the Environment.

But by no mean is vinegar harmless to the environment! It seems to be better than most artificial cleaners, but caution is still needed. And as with everything, I would advise using it sparingly.

Surface Cleaning

Regarding overall cleaning, it seems to be even easier than cloth washing.

There was an interesting experiment by Susan Sumner, Ph.D., a food-safety scientist at Virginia Tech, into the effectiveness of vinegar as a disinfectant. She found that spraying vinegar and then spraying hydrogen peroxide on produce killed a majority of E. coli, Salmonella, Shigella, and Listeria bacteria.

And since hydrogen peroxide is highly unstable and decomposes into water and oxygen without harming the environment this is a brilliant idea to decontaminate not only food (it's suggested to spray and let them dry before eating) but also all surfaces.

Another thing worth mentioning is fresh lemon juice. Yes as simple as that. It has mild bleaching properties, and because we wouldn't be using it in large quantities, it will be safe too.

Some people advise here on bicarbonate of soda, but I've found some troubling info. If naturally obtained, it comes from non-renewable resources. So that's a no. And if synthetically created it is a harmful process. Therefore, I will not advise using it! 
However, it still is a better option than, for example, bleach.


Now at this point I am fairly confident that switching to cloths and dumping paper towels is better for environment overall, as long as my detergents' use follows these rules:

  1. Buy concentrated detergents to save on packaging, or even better: look for refilling companies. Ecover or You I'm planning to check how that works financially for me next week.
  2. If need be, buy only products in recyclable or biodegradable packaging.
  3. Buy eco-friendly products. Now EU has a great thing which is called ECO LABEL,  but as always the UK has to be unique, so it is hard to find UK products with it. 
  4. Replace detergents with fermented vinegar + hydrogen peroxide where possible.
  5. Use only minimal amounts of cleaning agents to save the environment, but also equipment such as washing machines. Washing machines also finish in the ground. The later, the better.