Cleaning Supplies and Paper Towels
The Sustainability of Cleaning Supplies and Paper Towel Use
Liz Hetherington, Fall 2007
I decided to pick a topic that not only affects us while we are in Beam Reach, but also impacts us on a daily basis after we leave. Paper towels and cleaning supplies are something found in every household, but most people don’t usually give a thought to their impact on the environment. Paper towels were invented in 1931 by a Philadelphia school teacher in order to prevent children from giving each other colds. Paper towels have a clear sanitary advantage over rags because they are disposable, which is why most people, including myself use them (www.wikipedia.org). However, they are an immense waste of paper, especially considering they are usually thrown in the trash and not recycled. The United States currently uses 100 million tons of paper each year and this number continues to increase (www.conservatree.org). The paper production industry is one of the largest water polluters in the world (ww.conserveatree.org).
If you are going to buy paper towels here are ways to lessen their impacts. One very smart choice is to buy recycled paper products. Recycled paper uses 55% less water and helps preserve our forests. Recycled paper also reduces air pollution by 74% and eliminates many toxic pollutants.
There are many companies producing recycled, all natural paper products. For example, the company Seventh Generation whose products can be found at many local grocery stores, including Whole Foods, makes many different types of cleaning supplies, detergents and paper products. Their paper towels are produced from 100% recycled paper (80% post-consumer, 20% pre-consumer) They are hypoallergenic, unbleached and just as strong and absorbent compared to other paper towels (www.seventhgeneration.com). Making the decision to use unbleached recycled paper towels does make a big difference. If every household in the United States replaced just one roll of their regular paper towels with a recycled roll we would save one million trees, 2.6 million cubic feet of landfill space (3,800 full garbage trucks), 367 million gallons of water (one years supply for 2800 families of four) and we would avoid 38,000 tons of pollution(www.seventhgeneration.com).
Although using recycled paper is better there are other alternatives for paper towels. There is a product called Twist Euro #20 which is sold at Whole Foods for $6. It is supposed to be a cross between a sponge and a paper towel (http://casasugar.com). Twist Euro are antibacterial, you can clean them in the dishwasher, and once they have to be thrown out they are biodegradable (http://casasugar.com). This is a great alternative that is less wasteful and more environmentally friendly.
Another issue that we face on a regular basis is how to choose the cleaning supplies we use. Many cleaning supplies have toxic chemicals that are toxic for humans to inhale and have detrimental effects on the environment. Bleach is commonly used as a disinfectant, in swimming pools, in laundry, etc. Bleach is used because it kills a wider variety of bacteria and viruses than other cleaners (www.shareguide.com/hazard.html). However, the production of chlorine bleach (bonding chlorine, water and sodium hydroxide) produces chlorine gas which creates a toxic byproduct known as dioxin. Dioxin is a known carcinogen that has been linked to birth defects and genetic changes. When bleach breaks down in the environment, small amounts of adsorbable organic halides or “AOX” are released which are toxic to shellfish and other marine organisms(www.shareguide.com/hazard.html).
There are alternatives to bleach such as hydrogen peroxide, and quaternary ammonium compounds known as “quats.” None of these alternatives kill as wide of a range of bacteria in comparison to bleach. There is a nontoxic quat that has become available in Canada called Enviro Care Neutral Disinfectant (www.epa.gov/oppt/epp/pubs/clean/cleaning.htm). It is currently being tested in California. Bleach, although it maybe necessary at times, can be substituted and should be replaced by non-chlorine bleach or other alternatives whenever possible.
Along with bleach, and other household cleaners, detergents pose a huge threat to the environment. Laundry detergent is a significant ocean polluter because it contains phosphates (www.momsorganichouse.com). Excess phosphates from our laundry detergents go into the ocean and create algae blooms. This eventually creates “dead zones,” which are anoxic spots in the water where no animals can survive (www.momsorganichouse.com). Many fishing spots and shellfish beds have been destroyed because of excess phosphates. We use 30lbs. of laundry detergent per person, per year, which calculates to 8.3 billion lbs. of dry detergent and 1 billion lbs of liquid detergent used per year in the United States (www.seventhgeneration.com). Detergents also contain artificial fragrances that are made with petroleum that does not degrade into the environment. It has toxic affects on fish and mammals. If every person in the United States substituted a 150 oz. petroleum based laundry detergent with a 150 oz all-natural, veggie-based detergent, we would save 298,000 barrels of oil per year. This is enough to heat 17,100 homes for one year (www.seventhgeneration.com).
I think that the Beam Reach program uses an average number of paper towels but we do use recycled, unbleached towels. We use less cleaning supplies that the average household, especially since there is no shower to clean and we do not clean the toilets with anything but water. However, there are some issues on the boat that we cannot avoid, for instance we cannot use natural dish soap because it is ineffective in sea water. We also need to use some chemicals to clean and prevent mold from growing on the boat. I think that overall Beam Reach uses paper towels and cleaning supplies in a fairly sustainable way, however during our time at the labs, we use many more paper towels (in the bathroom), and the cleaning staff uses a lot of bleach to clean.