How do I know which cleaning products are the most environmentally friendly?

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Almost all Americans use household cleaning products -- from dish detergents to bathroom cleaners and floor polish to scouring pads. Most of us are exposed to cleaners on a daily basis, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) [source: Davies]. Even if we don't use cleaners, it's likely we're regularly come into contact with them at work, school or elsewhere.

Unfortunately, cleaners often contain harsh chemicals that can be harmful to our health and planet. Health effects associated with cleaning products include asthma, contact dermatitis, burns to the skin and eyes and inflammation or fluid in the lungs. Long-term repercussions may include reproductive problems, cancer, heart disease and other health issues.

The environment also can fall victim to cleaning products' acrid ingredients. Chemicals in laundry detergents, for example, have been found in 70 percent of streams and waterways throughout the country, and they threaten wildlife, according to Women's Voices for the Earth, a national organization that helps women advocate for a healthy environment [source: Women and Environment]. Some ingredients in cleaners have been directly linked to environmental problems, such as chemicals getting into bodies of water and foaming in streams, according to the EPA, which says some commonly used household cleaner ingredients have room for improvement even today.

Health and environmental concerns have prompted many consumers to push for safer alternatives to cleaning products. In fact, the EPA says Americans are among the main drivers for safer household products. But identifying environmentally safe cleaners can be challenging for consumers. Turn to the next page to find out why.

Obstacles to Identifying Environmentally Safe Cleaners

Household cleaners make up a $16 billion industry. And the natural and organic household cleaners category makes up 5 percent of it, coming in at $737 million. These figures come from the Nutrition Business Journal, which projects that natural/organic household cleaners will experience a compound annual growth rate of 14 percent from 2009 through 2017 [source: Ooyen]. With so many product options, choosing the safest, healthiest cleaners for the home can be challenging for reasons other than too many choices, namely the lack of a national regulatory body.

A fraction of the tens of thousands of chemicals in commerce in the United States are used in consumer goods like household cleaners. Chemicals are regulated as they enter commerce rather than at the product level. This means that there is no seal or label given to cleaners by an independent, nationally recognized organization.

The EPA, however, encourages manufacturers to develop safer products. Those who do so are allowed to use its Design for Environment (DfE) logo on approved products. The mark allows consumers to easily identify products, such as household cleaners, that can help protect the environment and that are safer for human health.

But shoppers who want to know exact ingredients might not find what they're looking for on household cleaner labels. U.S. law does not require manufacturers of cleaning products to list all ingredients on labels. But manufacturers might be changing their ways in the near future. The Soap and Detergent Association and Consumer Specialty Products Association launched a joint, voluntary effort to encourage their members to list their ingredients in a public format by 2010. In the meantime, consumers are left to make sense of what's on the packaging.

Different manufacturers can make the same marketing claim like "degradable" or "ozone-friendly" and mean different things with those terms. This has resulted in confusion among consumers. Albeit, the Federal Trade Commission is in the process of updating its Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims, a document more commonly called "Green Guides." In it, the FTC sets a standard of transparency for marketing products, including cleaners, and explains how terminology should and should not be used. The FTC is legally allowed to bring law enforcement actions against false or misleading marketing claims.

Tips for Finding Safe Cleaners

Besides looking for the Design for Environment (DfE) logo and knowing what marketing terms mean, consumers can also read product packaging to make sure environmental claims are qualified. All assertions should specify whether it's referring to the product, packaging or both.

Labels should include additional information explaining why the cleaner is environmentally friendly. Take, for example, a floor cleaner labeled "environmentally preferable." Somewhere on the container should be qualifying language about how the cleaner is preferable, such as "This product has no air polluting potential and is 100 percent biodegradable."

Similarly, seals of approval should come with an explanation and identify the third party doing the certifying. The organization should be independent from advertisers and have expertise in the area for which it's certifying.

Other indicators of environmental responsibility are the following: recycled, recyclable or refillable containers; concentrated products that require less packaging; cleaners free of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that can deplete the ozone; and degradable, biodegradable or photodegradable product contents or packaging.

Source reduction claims also should be specific. For example, a toilet cleaner ad that claims the solid waste generated by disposing of its container is "now 20 percent less than our previous container," is in good practice if the cleaner company can prove disposal of the new package contributes 20 percent less waste by weight or volume to the solid waste stream. Comparatively, the general claim "20 percent less waste" is ambiguous and therefore deceptive because it's unclear if the claim is referring to a preceding product or that of a competitor, according to the FTC's Complying with the Environmental Marketing Guides.

For more help in cleaning green, see some of the links on the next page.

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Sources

  • Davies, Clive. Chief, Design for the Environment Program, Environmental Protection Agency. Interview. March 24, 2009.
  • Federal Trade Commission, "Sorting Out Green Advertising Claims." http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/general/gen02.shtm (March 26, 2009, March 27, 2009)
  • MSNBC, "Do You Know What's in Your Cleaning Products?" http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/29663739/ (March 17, 2009)
  • Ooyen, Carla. Research Manager with Nutrition Business Journal. Personal correspondence. March 19, 2009.
  • Tekin, Jenn. Marketing Manager with Packaged Facts & SBI. Personal correspondence. March 17, 2009.
  • University of California - Berkeley. http://berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2006/05/22_householdchemicals.shtml (March 26, 2009)
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Household Products Database.http://householdproducts.nlm.nih.gov/cgi-bin/household/prodtree?prodcat=Inside+the+Home (March 17,
  • Women's Voices of the Earth, "Household Cleaning Products and Effects on Human Health."http://www.womenandenvironment.org/campaignsandprograms/SafeCleaning/safecleaninghealth (March 17, 2009)