The end of February means warm weather will return soon. Then it will be time to open the windows, wear short sleeves, enjoy the outdoors.
Oh yes, and time for spring cleaning. Ugh. We might as well do it the green way.
Blame the ancient Persians (or Hebrews or Chinese), but societies worldwide have greeted the arrival of spring with a spate of cleaning for millennia.
Maybe it has to do with the dreariness of winter making us less active and more likely to neglect basic housework. And some things we don’t need to clean regularly get pretty gross over time.
Over the past century or so, western civilization has invented lots more things to clean. And we have become used to convenient but potentially toxic cleaning products. With little effort we can do green spring cleaning.
Routine cleaning chores
Some of us dust, vacuum, and clean plumbing fixtures regularly. Some of us, um, don’t. Even the most diligent housekeepers don’t clean everything every week. And with brighter sunlight streaming through the windows, neglected places become more noticeable.
Our stores offer a plethora of cleaning products that specialize in one thing.
We get one detergent for washing clothes, another for washing dishes in the dishwasher, and another for washing them by hand.
We have some cleaners for glass, others for wood, and still more especially for walls, floors, sinks, toilets, the oven, and so on.
This excess of cleaning products has two negative consequences for sustainability. Many of them contain chemicals like bleach and phosphates, not to mention compounds only a chemist can remember and pronounce. If they have a warning label, leave them on the shelf.
And then we have to discard excess packaging when we’ve used them up.
So save some of those spray bottles. Make your own more versatile cleaners from common and cheap ingredients like baking soda, borax, lemon juice, vinegar, and salt. They worked well long before manufacturers dreamed up all those specialized products. And they continue to work well. You can easily find recipes online.
If you’d rather not make your own cleaners, look for brands known for their dedication to the environment. Seventh Generation, for example, exists to make sustainable cleaning products. And if you can find concentrated products you can mix with water in a spray bottle, you cut down on packaging.
Be skeptical of labels with vague environmental claims using words like nontoxic or biodegradable. These terms have no legal definition. They may mean nothing more than greenwashing—a non-sustainable product masquerading as green.
Other cleaning supplies
For green spring cleaning, cut down not only on toxins but waste. Prefer rags or other cloths to paper towels. You can wash them and reuse them. Rags also avoid the embedded water from manufacturing and shipping the paper towels.
And Swiffers require not only a cleaning fluid in a plastic bottle but also a disposable cleaning pad. You can still find reusable mops!
If you do use paper towels, put them in your compost pile if you have one. At least that will reduce the volume of trash you send to the landfill.
Once a year tasks
It’s easy to gather up everything you don’t want anymore and put it out at the curb with the trash. But that’s not green spring cleaning, it is?
So carefully sort your discards into four categories:
Keep. Yes. You may be able to use clothing you can no longer wear for rags.
With some imagination, you may be able to find ways to reuse a lot more for something else than its original purpose. You don’t even need your own imagination. Just search the web for ideas.
Donate. What can you do with something you’ve replaced? If a small appliance still works, someone else can use it. If you’re tired of an old picture, someone else might enjoy it. So donate them to a thrift store.
And did you know that you can donate old clothes with stains or holes no one can wear again? It’s called fabric recycling. The organization you donate to will send it to a company that will turn old fabric into reusable fiber.
Recycle. You probably participate in your local recycling program, but you can recycle much more than what you can put out at the curb or take to a drop-off center. Check to find the closest hazardous waste recycling center. Besides paint and hazardous cleaners, it will probably take electronic waste, old batteries—possibly just about anything. You can also look at Earth911 to find companies that want your discards for raw materials.
If you have a compost pile, you can put anything made of wood, cloth, or other organic matter there. Not just yard waste and kitchen waste. That keeps it out of the landfill.
Trash. Despite your best efforts, you may not be able to keep, donate, or recycle everything you want to get out of the house. Just try to keep this category to a minimum.
And if you’ve let food go bad in the refrigerator and you can see mold, you have mold spores in it you can’t see.
Spring cleaning provides just the occasion to take all the food out of the refrigerator. And all the drawers and shelves. Clean everything with warm soapy water, perhaps with a little borax to take care of any stray mold spores.
Don’t forget to pull the fridge away from the wall and vacuum the coils. That will help it run more efficiently.
If you use your oven very much, it can get disgusting after a year, too. If you have a self-cleaning oven, it takes a lot of energy and will warm your house. Run it on a cool day so the oven will let the furnace work a little less.
Otherwise, you’re faced with one of the most unpleasant of all cleaning tasks. But don’t buy a commercial oven cleaner. The toxic fumes will stay in your house for a long time. Look online for instructions for cleaning it with washing soda. My post The ultimate guide to using washing soda and baking soda: 88 helpful hints, for example.
Probably no one paints every year. Besides the hassle involved, painting makes some people sick.
Why? Most household paints contain toxic chemicals, especially volatile organic compounds (VOCs). So do many other finishes, adhesives, and some cleaning supplies. VOCs cause symptoms like headaches and dizziness.
All paints need to keep the pigment in solution until you apply it. The base paint you buy has solvents. Whatever pigments are added to make the color you want have solvents, too. Then they evaporate as the paint dries. In fact, paint can emit VOCs into the air for years after it’s dry to the touch.
So look not only for low-VOC or no-VOC paint but also low-emission paint. Also, be aware that some paints contain other toxins than VOCs. A decade ago, low-VOC paints didn’t perform well. Manufacturers have gotten better at making them.
How to do your green spring cleaning without driving yourself nuts
Surely you want to maintain good relationships with your family and have a sense of accomplishment when you’re finished. That takes planning.
First, decide what you need to do. It’s so easy to start a project and then see something else that needs to be done. If you start that, you have two unfinished projects on your hands. A third and a fourth may not be far behind.
So take some time to look carefully at your home. The more you notice before you get to work, the less likely you are to find unpleasant surprises.
Second, break your to-do list into smaller tasks. Some tasks may take less than an hour to complete. You may need to do others in steps. For example, cleaning the oven requires applying your soda, or whatever else you plan to use, and letting it sit overnight. So you’ll scrub it out in the morning.
Third, don’t plan to do all your green spring cleaning at once. Set aside an hour or so over several days. That leaves the rest of the day for your normal daily routine. Or even getting out and enjoying the spring weather.
While you’re at it: other conservation tips
Spring means more than cleaning. Here are some other thoughts to keep in mind that will save some energy, save some money, and maybe even help you have some fun.
- Use a propane grill instead of charcoal for cookouts. It’s much more efficient. It gives off fewer fumes. It’s less of a fire hazard. Plus you don’t have to wait around as long to start cooking.
- When you wash your car, use a commercial carwash instead of a bucket in your driveway. It will recycle the water. You can’t.
- Do you plant a garden? Plan for gardening while you’re planning for cleaning. You probably find it more fun.
- Start a compost pile if you don’t have one already. And did you know you can also compost food scraps, hair, paper products, and almost anything else organic? (You need special equipment to compost bones or meat products.) Keep a compost pail in your kitchen and empty it at your convenience. I’d appreciate it if you follow that link. I’ll get a little money and you won’t pay anything more. I link to the one I use. It’s easy to find others.
- Electric driers work well, but they’re energy hogs. So consider dryer racks or even a retractable clothesline so you can dry your clothes outdoors.
- Start upgrading your lighting to LEDs if you haven’t already.
- Get a programmable thermostat if you don’t already have one.
- Get control of energy vampires, appliances, and gadgets that keep using electricity after you turn them off.
- Don’t use air fresheners. They’re as bad for indoor air quality as VOCs or cleaning with bleach. You can soak a cotton ball with your favorite essential oil. Put it in a small dish where children and pets can’t reach it. Plenty of houseplants work even better.
What’s good for your health in your home is also good for the environment. You don’t have to dispose of toxins you don’t use for your cleaning and painting!
8 ways to go green in spring / Earth911. March 22, 2010
25 green spring cleaning tips / Liza Barnes. SparkPeople. April 15, 2008
The eco-friendly experts’ guide to detoxifying your home / Laura @ Cleanify. January 31, 2017
How to go green: spring cleaning / Blythe Copeland, Treehugger. March 3, 2009
Room-by-room spring cleaning the green way / Abby Quillen, Fix. April 23, 2016
Tips for green spring cleaning / EarthShare. March 22, 2016
Top 10 green spring-cleaning tips / Maria Trimarchi, How Stuff Works: Home & Garden. March 11, 2009
Borax, vinegar, soda. Photo by David Guion
Cleaning product aisle. Some rights reserved by David 23.
Quilt from reclaimed fabric. Some rights reserved by denise carbonell.
Clothes line. Some rights reserved by Ben Lucier.