Take a look under your kitchen or bathroom sink and tell me what you see. A tiny city of cleaners and chemicals whose ingredients you can't pronounce; billboards of warning labels with stern recommendations should the product be improperly used; hazard signs explaining the flammability of the product within?
Unless you live in a household that uses natural cleaners, this is a common sight. But even if you wish to make a change toward more Earth-friendly cleaning chemicals, you shouldn't simply pour the toxic stuff down the drain or dump it in the trash. Doing so can have serious consequences not only on the ecosystem but on the people put in contact with the agents. So what do you do?
The disappearing solubles
If a cleaning product is often used in (or with) water — such as fabric softener, bleach or drain-clearer — these products are water-soluble and can be poured down the drain with running water.
But even this can have its consequences. Some dishwashing detergents, for instance, contain the chemical phosphate and too much of this naturally occurring chemical can result in algal blooms in natural water sources. Before dumping your water-soluble cleaning agent, make sure it is phosphate-free and try to purchase phosphate-free agents in the future.
Another thing to keep in mind when dumping water-soluble chemicals down the drain: make sure you do not mix chemicals. This can result in negative chemical reactions and can do a number on your drainage system — not to mention your health.
Know your resources
For all cleaning agents without proper disposal information listed on the label or a number to call, contact your local waste-management company to determine the best way to safely dispose of the product(s). The city of Chicago's Recycling and Waste Management service details the types of products it can accept, where to take them and the hours of service on its website: cityofchicago.org
Many communities offer permanent drop-off sites, special collection days and some local businesses may even provide the service to dispose or recycle chemicals for you. The best way to find this information is to contact the waste-management group working within your city or town.
Vinegar is a good cleaning agent and acts like an all-purpose cleaner, both disinfecting and deodorizing surfaces. A good solution contains 1 part water to 1 part vinegar. Make sure your solution isn't too vinegary since this can cause it to be acidic and can eat away at tile grout. Also, you should never use vinegar on marble since its acidity will dull the soft marble surface.
Lemon juice is great at dissolving soap scum and hard water deposits, or to shine brass and copper. You can even use the fruit to scrub dishes, surfaces and stains; just add a sprinkling of baking soda to a sliced lemon and go to work.
Making the switch
Picking up a potentially harmful cleaning agent while running errands is an easy habit to fall into, and some cleaning jobs require a little more oomph than completely natural products can provide. So it is likely that chemical-laden products will still be in almost everyone's home.
Being smart about your products is the next best thing aside from nixing them completely. The EPA developed a waste management hierarchy that includes reducing your consumption of household hazardous material, reusing products that you may still have, and recycling or properly disposing of the chemical cleaning agents. Keeping these tips in mind can help you stay on the right track to properly using — or disposing of — your cleaning supplies.