Are Natural Cleaning Products Better for the Environment?

It might sound like a stupid question – natural is always better, right? Unfortunately (sigh)…as with many things in life and certainly many things in sustainability, the question alone raises more questions than it could answer.

For example, what is ‘natural’? Secondly, are DIY ingredients like vinegar and bicarb more ‘natural’ than shop-bought products? And which is better for the environment?

What is ‘natural’

I’ve learned a lot about chemistry from Brian McLean, the Biochemist who is one of the founders of TriNature plant based cleaning products. He says ‘Let us be clear that there is no such thing as ‘chemical free’. Everything on earth is 100% chemical. All of you, all of me, all of a Granny Smith apple – all entirely composed of chemicals!’ (Read the article here). Basically – everything around us is composed of chemicals. According to Brian, something is only truly ‘natural’ when it is in it’s natural state. In other words, an apple is ‘natural’ but when you break it down into it’s component chemicals, those chemicals are not.

This – biochemically speaking – means that there is no such thing as a ‘natural’ cleaning product, yet even we (at Going Green Solutions) use that term for the cleaning products we stock, including TriNature! This is because when most of us speak of natural cleaning products, what we really mean is one that is based on chemical ingredients that are derived from a natural source – eg. an apple, rather than based on chemicals that have been synthetically manufactured. We also usually mean one that is gentler and less likely to negatively impact our own health and that of the environment, and we think all of these considerations are really important, and we imagine you will agree!

However –  can you see how ‘grey’ this discussion about ‘what is natural’ is already becoming? To add another tone of ‘grey’ into the picture, let’s move to the next point.

Is a chemical used in DIY cleaning such as vinegar or bicarb soda more ‘natural’ than a shop-bought formula.

Well – vinegar and bicarb are derived from natural sources, however BOTH are created via a series of chemical processes. So neither of them is in it’s ‘natural’ state. To my mind….this means that they are not any more natural than a specially formulated cleaning product that is also made from chemicals derived from natural sources.

The final question – which is better for the environment?

My personal belief is – neither is inherently better for the environment, because it all depends on how they are used. Any cleaning product should be used in a manner in which, at the end of the cleaning job, all active ingredients have been ‘used up’ – so to speak – by the cleaning process. Any remaining residue should be basically inactive and hence, less likely to harm the environment.

Let me try to explain. Just imagine….you decide to clean with vinegar, and because it is so cheap (and natural!), you glug a cup full of vinegar into the bath in the process of cleaning it…and this goes down the drain. Is this healthy for the environment? NO!! In fact, if you are using that water as grey-water, it will surely kill every living thing it touches because of the high level of acidity. Even with a shop-bought formula – if the recommended use is for 5ml and you use 25ml, whatever active ingredients were not used for the cleaning job will be washed into the environment and do damage.

Its a bit like choosing LED globes for your home because they are the environmentally friendly option, and then installing 200 of them and leaving them on all day and night. Yes they are eco-friendly globes, but NO – your usage of them is not eco-friendly! It’s REALLY important to use products in the most minimal way you can while getting the job done done well.

So as you can see, whilst we definitely recommend using cleaning products that are made from chemicals derived from natural plant based sources (whether it be DIY or TriNature) as opposed to synthetic chemicals, we also believe that how you use them is of utmost importance as to whether and to what degree they are harmful to the environment. It’s not enough to just choose an eco-friendly product – you need to use it in an environmentally responsible way.

Even if you choose a laundry product that meets all the criteria above such as our TriNature Alpha Plus Laundry Liquid, the way you use it still determines whether or not it creates grey water safe waste water.

Lanfax tests are all done using the Recommended Usage instructions – if you use twice the recommended usage, you can probably well imagine that this will effect the pH level, the sodium and phosphorus content, and the electrical conductivity of the waste water after your wash has been completed.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe that a small amount of a concentrated product is sufficient for the job, and it’s tempting to use double – but try ALWAYS use your products as directed; the environment will thank you for it!

Finally, even if you are not using grey water on your garden, remember that whatever ends up in your waste water still ends up in our environment (even if it is not your immediate back yard) – so please choose the most environmentally sensitive products you can!