8 Zero Waste and Toxin-Free Cleaning Hacks

Cleaning a kitchen worktop with natural products lemons, baking soda and vinegar
Lemons, baking soda and vinegar make excellent natural cleaning agents. Dougal Waters / DigitalVision / Getty Images
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It’s common to have a cabinet under the kitchen sink filled with plastic bottles of sprays, solutions, and solvents for every cleaning need. But did you know it’s easy to keep your home spotless and sanitary without toxic chemicals and extra waste? Here’s how to get started.

1. Make Your Own Cleaners

Many household cleaners contain chemicals that are harmful to both human health and the environment. After being used, these chemicals make their way into waterways, polluting and disrupting the balance of ecosystems. Alkylphenol ethoxylates — a common ingredient in cleaners, for example — is known to affect reproduction in wildlife, and the volatile organic compounds (VOC) found in many products impact both indoor and outdoor air quality, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Avoid these chemicals and the extra plastic by making your own simple surface cleaner with white vinegar and leftover lemons. This acidic combo is perfect for tackling greasy countertops and wiping down bathroom surfaces: lemons are high in citric acid, which has strong antibacterial properties, and the acetic acid in vinegar helps break down grease. However, avoid using it on natural stone — like marble countertops — or grout, as the acid can degrade them over time. To make the cleaner, fill a large glass jar with white vinegar and store it in the fridge. As you collect lemon rinds from squeezing or zesting (or, if you happen to have a couple extra on hand), add them to the jar. After a few weeks, remove the lemon pieces and strain the liquid through a cheesecloth. Mix equal parts of water with the lemon-vinegar solution in a spray bottle, and use liberally.

2. Try Baking Soda

Baking soda is one of the magic-makers of non-toxic cleaning. It’s slightly basic in pH, and helps deodorize and dissolve organic compounds — and, you probably already have it in your cabinet. Spread it on dirty stainless steel surfaces, like the kitchen sink, and simply wipe clean. Sprinkle a bit on a damp sponge and clean the tub, toilet, refrigerator, or even painted walls. To clean up tarnished silverware, boil a tablespoon per liter of water, then add the utensils and a sheet of tinfoil, which helps facilitate the chemical reaction. Remove from heat, and let rest until the silverware looks shiny and new. 

Baking soda is even more powerful when mixed with vinegar. To clean greasy, scorched pans, boil a cup of water and a cup of white vinegar in the pan, remove from the stove, then add a tablespoon or two of baking soda. Let the mixture sit, and once it’s cool enough to handle, scrub the pan with a scouring tool (keeping in mind that some non-stick pans can’t tolerate heavy-duty tools) like a bristle, sponge, or steel wool. To clean out a clogged drain, pour some baking soda down, followed by hot vinegar, which will froth and break up whatever’s blocking your way. 

Or, create a paste, using the gritty structure of baking soda as an abrasive. This method is especially useful inside ovens, where food residue and oil really build up. Rub a mixture of baking soda and water on the oven walls, then spray with vinegar until it bubbles. Wipe away the paste and all of that greasy grime along with it. 

3. Ditch the Paper Towels

Keeping the kitchen stocked with paper towels has a higher environmental cost than you might realize: to manufacture just one ton of them requires 20,000 gallons of water and 17 trees — and, in the end, millions of tons of these towels are dumped into landfills every year. Ditch the 50-pack of disposable rolls and instead choose a set of reusables, like the popular Unpaper Towels, which can be rolled up and unraveled just like their paper counterparts. 

4. Embrace the Broom

The mighty broom doesn’t need to be plugged in to tidy up a space. Sweep hard surfaces instead of vacuuming, when possible. 

5. Try Castile Soap 

Besides being extremely versatile, castile soap is a vegetable-derived rather than animal-derived soap, and is both non-toxic and biodegradable, unlike many conventional soaps. You might recognize the Dr. Bronner’s liquid castile soap and its endless uses: dish soap, body wash, laundry detergent, floor cleaner, etc. 

To make an all-purpose cleaner, mix one part liquid castile soap with 24 parts water. Keep in a spray bottle to clean floors, surfaces, and bathrooms (even the toilet). Add a few drops of essential oils for a fresh scent, if desired, although the oil might leave streaks on glass and chrome fixtures. 

6. Reusable Swiffer Pads

Instead of buying costly (and wasteful) containers of disposable Swiffer wipes, check out a local hardware or home goods store for a reusable pad that fits your mop. Or, make your own low-cost pad by attaching a rag to the mop with rubber bands. Either way, the all-purpose lemon-vinegar or castile soap mixtures are excellent floor cleaners. 

7. Let the Microwave Clean Itself 

Hate a splatter-filled microwave? Fill a bowl with water, the juice of 1-2 lemons and the lemon halves, then microwave for three minutes, and then let it sit for 5 more minutes for the steam to fill the machine. Wipe the walls clean with a cloth. No chemicals needed! 

8. Crack a Window

When the room needs some refreshing, you can rely on good ‘ole fresh air. Canned air fresheners contain all kinds of chemicals, which are inhaled easily and are associated with migraines, breathing difficulties and asthma, as well as illness in infants. In a windowless (or particularly stuffy) room, use a homemade spray of one part water and two parts rubbing alcohol, mixing in a few drops of your favorite essential oil for scent. 

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