Green cleaning

by Eli Penberthy, Associate Editor

This article was originally published in April 2010

(April 2010) — Growing up in my house, spring cleaning was a yearly tradition anticipated more than any holiday — for several days each April, my Norwegian-born mother and grandmother would clean and organize every closet, wash and iron all the curtains, scour every tile and appliance, and dust every nook and cranny until the entire house gleamed.

Although my own cleaning is decidedly less comprehensive now that I live alone in a much smaller space, I’ve definitely inherited the “clean gene” and there are a few things I learned from the women in my family that I do very regularly, including scrubbing the bathroom, cleaning the bedding, and washing the floors.

My grandmother always says a “good bucket of water” is all you need for most cleaning tasks — including washing floors, which I find essential to do frequently for reducing dust and dirt.

For my wood floors, I fill a large pail with hot water and add either a few squirts of vegetable-based castile soap or a cup of white vinegar. If using vinegar, I often add a couple drops of lemon or lavender essential oil to cut the scent of vinegar, although it’s not really necessary because the vinegar smell goes away when the floors dry.

White vinegar works to cut grease and grime for a variety of other household cleaning tasks. A few tablespoons (or more) added to about a quart of water is a great solution for cleaning windows.

Keep a spray bottle of vinegar solution to use on bathroom tiles (I spray and wipe down the walls of my shower after each use), appliances, countertops and cutting boards. The vinegar alone is effective for killing germs, but to sanitize cutting boards and surfaces, it’s good to follow a vinegar spray with hydrogen peroxide. Used together, they’re a good sanitizing alternative to harsh cleansers that contain bleach and ammonia.

Tough jobs: drains, ovens, toilets

The most hazardous cleaning products are drain cleaners, oven cleaners and acidic toilet bowl cleaners, as well as any product containing chlorine or ammonia.

A greener approach to keeping drains unclogged is occasionally pouring down 1/2 cup of baking soda, followed by 1 cup vinegar. Let it bubble for a while before rinsing with hot water. You also can prevent clogged drains by using hair and food traps.

Oven surfaces, another gritty job, can be cleaned by coating them in a paste of water and baking soda and letting it stand overnight, then scrubbing it off in the morning. Bon Ami, a non-chlorine scouring powder, also works well. You can prevent grease build-up by lining the oven floor with aluminum foil and frequently wiping down the oven walls with vinegar.

You may be surprised to learn that even tub and tile scum in bathrooms can be cleaned without harsh, toxic chemicals. Although a quick spray of vinegar is great for everyday maintenance, attack tubs and tiles with a mixture of 1 2/3 cups baking soda, 1/2 cup liquid soap, and 1/2 cup water. As a last step, add 2 tablespoons of vinegar (if you add the vinegar too early it will react with the baking soda). Immediately apply, wipe and scrub.

To clean the toilet bowl, sprinkle baking soda or white vinegar inside and let it sit for a few minutes. Then scrub with a toilet brush.

Know that products labeled “antibacterial,” such as ammonia and bleach sanitizers, are unnecessary for killing germs. According to Consumers Union, “there’s growing consensus that antibacterial household cleaners won’t keep you any safer from infectious illnesses than regular types.”

If you’re concerned about germs in the kitchen and bathroom, use a washcloth for cleaning, which you can wash and reuse, instead of a sponge. Sponges actually harbor, not eradicate, bacteria.


No matter how much time you devote to cleaning the house, washing the dishes and laundry are two things we all do quite often.

Some ingredients in conventional detergents can be harmful to health and the environment, including APEs, phthalates and phosphates. Conventional laundry detergents also may contain optical brighteners — fluorescent dyes that coat clothing, absorbing ultraviolet light and emitting blue light. This doesn’t really make clothes any cleaner. Optical brighteners may not biodegrade easily and cause many people to experience rashes. 

PCC carries nontoxic, biodegradable, hypoallergenic laundry detergents that are free of phosphates, fillers and optical brighteners. Although they may seem more expensive than the products you’d find in a regular grocery store, they actually are cost-effective because they’re concentrated — only a small amount is necessary.

In fact, using too much detergent can leave residue on your dishes or clothes, so try using half or even less than what the package calls for. Concentrated formulas also are more environmentally friendly because they reduce excessive packaging.

To remove stains or brighten your whites, try “non-chlorine bleach” made from sodium percarbonate or sodium perborate. Adding lemon juice or hydrogen peroxide to the wash cycle also helps to brighten whites. Adding 1/4 cup vinegar during the rinse cycle will remove excess detergent from clothes.

When it’s not raining, hang your laundry out to dry (especially your bedding) — it’ll be crisp and smell fresh, and save lots of energy used by the dryer. (Note: It is legal to hang laundry outside in Issaquah, Seattle, Kirkland, Edmonds and Redmond.)

Keeping it fresh

Okay, so scrubbing the bathroom is no holiday. But true to my cleanliness-is-next-to-godliness Scandinavian roots, I have to admit that I don’t mind cleaning at all — there’s something deeply satisfying about a grit- and grime-free living space.

For hands-on cleaning tasks, I find the ingredients and methods above to be more than sufficient. I don’t always need to scrub on hands and knees to make it feel clean and fresh and, in fact, some of the best methods are no work at all.

When my mom comes to visit, she often leaves bowls of baking soda in my fridge and closet, and sprinkles some over the garbage (or compost pail) to absorb unpleasant smells. Also, because ventilating is the best way to keep the air clear of pollutants, I take advantage of the mild Seattle climate and leave my windows open much of the year.

These are such simple, effortless ways to freshen the house this spring — or any season — that you may just be inspired to get out your bucket, too!

Also in this issue

News bites, April 2010

More farms in Washington, Non-GMO #1, GE alfalfa comments, and more

Letters to the editor, April 2010

Shopping for quality food, Green medicine, Gluten-free is easy, and more