Green Claims (and boy do they stretch it!)
A no-nonsense guide to “green” cleaning products by Bio Pac founder Collin Harris
You have probably come across green product claims that sound something like, “Our cleaning products are made entirely from renewable, non-chlorine bleach, biodegradable plant resources- corn, palm, coconut, peppermint and organically grown orange-and abundant minerals…” (What are those abundant minerals? And non-chlorine bleach is usually good old hydrogen peroxide, the stuff in the brown bottle at the drug store!) “… and you get just the sweet smell of citrus and the gentle strength of all-natural cleaning agents…” (This is actually in an ad for another leading environmental cleaning product.)
My question is, what are the exact chemical ingredient names? Do these products contain detergents? I have yet to see ANY “natural” cleaning product to contain virtually any natural ingredients in them whatsoever except on the label. Any cleaning product that contains surfactants, and every one I have ever heard of does, certainly cannot be classified as “natural.” Detergents are synthetically made substances that absolutely REQUIRE petrochemical feedstocks as part of their chemical makeup. If someone has new information, please let me know.
Many environmentalists encourage the use of borax. Apparently green consumers are supposed to be thrilled to be using a product that contains levels of arsenic and lead. From the web: ( A story about a patient who developed a disease from working in a borax mine because of the arsenic exposure.)
“This borax mine is located in the western part of Turkey and is owned by the government. There is a high arsenic content in the product of the mine–colemanit. Workers are required to wear gloves, but this patient did not wear gloves and did not use a mask to prevent arsenic exposure because of his inadequate knowledge.”
I would rather have lots of phosphates around than lots of borax. Borax is best left out in the desert.
Citrus Oil Products
If a product has citrus oil in it, it must use synthetic detergents to emulsify the citrus oil. (If you ever have tried to use pure citrus oil (or d-limonene), it’s completely insoluble in water and must be combined with a detergent to make it useful.) There is absolutely nothing wrong with these products, it’s just that they are completely mis-labeled. I think people have a right to know that these products are in no way shape or form natural.
This same mis-information keeps appearing in many “green” catalogs. The only cleaning product that is closest to being all natural is pure castile soap and even this must be reacted with potassium or sodium hydroxide.
One quick note about the laundry disks. Detergents and soaps do nothing against dirt. They are effective on grease and oils. The last line on laundry disks about adding a teaspoon of detergent for dirtier clothes should really read “make sure you add some detergent for oily or greasy clothing” as there is nothing in these laundry disks to bind and rinse oily substances away as a detergent would. As to whether or not these produce ionized oxygen, we conducted a ph test of the water and found no difference between plain wash water and wash water with laundry disks. However, you should note that water is the BEST cleaner in the world and nothing comes close! (Many countries have been using just water for centuries!) If you have some technical data on ph changes, anti-bacterial properties, etc., we would be very interested in seeing it. We have also seen ads for the “laundry globe”, a plastic ball filled with colored water. Does it work better? We don’t think so. Contact me if you have any new information you have come across.
More on detergents, etc.
Because cleaning products are poorly labeled, most consumers don’t have any idea what’s in their cleaners. Much ado has been written about how detergents are made, whether they are vegetable based or petroleum based, etc. A study by the Franklin Associates showed that the total amount of petroleum used (net usage) was virtually the same for “vegetable based” or petroleum based detergents. It makes sense only after you contemplate how detergents are made. Even detergents based on plant resources use tremendous amount of oil in the production, refining, etc. that turn oils into detergents. We feel this issue has been blown way out of proportion by ridiculous marketing claims. If one were to believe the labels on many cleaning products, you would think you were harming the earth not to use them!! The problem with petroleum use is we burn oil, not use oil. We would have a virtually infinite supply of oil if we did not depend on it for our transportation needs. Many products are made from the “left overs” of fuel production. It is ironic that we drive our oil burning vehicles to the store and demand “vegetable based” detergents. We should be biking to the store demanding petroleum based detergents! It’s an excellent use for them.
What is very important is the type of detergents used. Many inexpensive brands, yes, even “green brands” use a detergent called nonyl-phenol ethoxylate instead of linear alcohol ethoxylate. Nonyl phenols are quite toxic, slow to biodegrade, and have no business in any cleaning product. However, they are used extensively because they cost about half what the linear alcohols cost. As a consumer, unless the product is clearly labeled, you have absolutely no way of knowing which detergent has been used. These are primarily used in laundry liquids, however, they are also found in dish liquids. What you should be looking for are clearly labeled products with exact ingredients listed.
It’s the Packaging Stupid!
Procter & Gamble commissioned a study for their cleaning products and found that over 95% of the environmental damage came from the packaging and NOT the products. (Even Procter & Gamble won’t use the nonyl-phenols). Obviously, if you can reuse the packaging, you come a long way in minimizing the damage caused by cleaning products. Bulk is really the only ecological way to buy cleaning products as long as the bulk containers themselves are re-used again and again. This is critical!
Chlorine and the Environment
A leading company distributing environmentally safe cleaners used to ask the title “What’s wrong with my cleaning products?” and underneath showing pictures of liquid laundry and hand dishwashing products. Then, they went on to tell about the evils of chlorine when the underlying assumption that regular store laundry and hand dishwashing products had chlorine in them. After all, why else would they show pictures of these regular store bought products unless they were implying guilt by association?
Chlorine may or may not be “evil” but one thing is for sure, it is not found in any laundry or liquid hand dish formulation (automatic dish formulations do use chlorine bleach). The bleach in laundry detergent products is a non-chlorine bleach. Of course, you can purchase chlorine separately, usually in the big white gallon jug, (think Clorox). The reason chlorine is not used in laundry formulations is just that it’s too hard on clothing. Hand dishwashing liquids have never had chlorine as part of the formula as it would be pretty nasty stuff to use, especially the way many people use hand dishwashing liquids.
Why did they think chlorine was evil? Bio Pac feels that the household use of chlorine does not harm the environment unless it is used excessively. It’s the industrial use of chlorine where millions of gallons are used in the pulp industry where chlorine creates havoc. This is because much of the chlorine remains unreacted in the discharge. Unreacted chlorine is very harmful to the environment. However, at home, little, if any chlorine even makes it to the end of your drain system as it becomes completely oxidized if used properly. It has been common in the green cleaning business to take a real problem, i.e. chlorine in the paper and pulp industry, and apply it incorrectly to a different use, i.e. chlorine in the home. The main reason we don’t use chlorine in our household is I just can’t stand the smell of chlorine oxidizing! Also, due to its strong oxidizing nature, it can ruin clothing in a hurry. We like hydrogen peroxide much better for these reasons, but not because we think we are saving the environment.
Phosphates and the Environment
The evils of phosphates have been given much press. What is the real story? Phosphates come from Calcium phosphate, a naturally occurring mineral in many soils. The problem with phosphates is they promote rapid growth. When this growth is algae in an enclosed lake system, the algae eventually dies, sinks and starts decomposing on the bottom of the lake, sucking out the oxygen in the water. Less oxygen, less fish, etc. This is a problem. However, is it the phosphates used in automatic dishwashers the problem, or is it something more obvious? We do believe phosphated products should not be used around enclosed lake systems. The problem goes way beyond the household use of phosphates. Every time soil is disturbed, phosphates are released into the environment. Every time fields are fertilized, phosphates are released. Talk about a big problem! Every time development occurs, soil is disturbed and adds tremendous amounts of phosphates to the environment. To put it in perspective, we could all happily wash forever using phosphated products if we did not develop land and used organic farming methods.
At this point, phosphates are the only mineral that can be used successfully in an automatic dishwasher formulation. Why? Because phosphates are very good at preventing surface redeposition on your dishes! Without phosphates, food substances, etc. are re-deposited on your dishes, creating an unsanitary environment. The use of phosphates prevents this from happening! At this time, we DO NOT RECOMMEND THE USE OF NON-PHOSPHATED AUTOMATIC DISHWASHER FORMULATIONS! Your health is more important than the small amount of phosphates used.
Animal testing and the industry
“Not tested on animals” “cruelty free”. Alright, I almost hate to jump into this issue and reveal the real reason most small companies don’t test on animals! Let me make one thing clear, Bio Pac does not support animal testing but before you think our company is so noble, read on! First, to test on animals properly, you need a tremendous investment in a laboratory. Millions of dollars is about right. Second, you have to be developing new product ingredients instead of just using ingredients already tested in the marketplace. At Bio Pac, we do not develop new product ingredients, rather we take existing tested ingredients and blend them into finished products. This is radically different from Procter & Gamble who actually manufacture new raw ingredients and test them! I don’t approve of their testing and hopefully they will switch to new methods, but the bottom line is many governments require animal testing before they will let new ingredients be sold in their country. Companies like Procter and Gamble make it easy for companies like Bio Pac not to test because they do all the dirty work! That is why you see claims like “We do not use any ingredients that have been tested on animals in the last five years”. I guess the sixth year is fine though. Puts it in a different light? New testing methods are on the way and one day you may see a Procter & Gamble product say “Cruelty Free” and then it would really mean something!
Fragrance and the Industry
Much ado has been made about artificial fragrances in products. I personally can’t stand most artificial fragrances, and in fact, I can get a pretty good headache just walking down a detergent row because their scents are so powerful. The small amount of fragrance found in these products has virtually no effect on the environment. However, it may have a big effect on your personal environment. If you like em, use em, but your not saving the world by avoiding them. Remember, cleaning products are a purely synthetic product with nothing natural in them except water!
Bottom Line on Cleaning Products?
All soaps and detergents are harmful to the environment and should be used as sparingly as possible. Don’t wash clothes, smell bad and by all means don’t clean your house. Most wild animals live their whole lives without doing laundry or washing! Okay, so if that is too extreme for you, buy clearly labeled products in bulk from manufacturers that are trying to do some good in the world with the money they are making! Don’t accept anything less!