Of All the Sustainable Cleaning Products Out There, These Are the Ones That Actually Work
I tried them all.
Published May 1, 2021 6:00 AM
For me, shifting toward living a more sustainable life started, as most things do, small. A few years ago I began stashing Baggu bags in my purse in case I decided to pop by the grocery store while I was out running errands. Then I got curious about solid shampoos and conditioners. But the true opening of the floodgates came with my recon on the best paper towel alternatives—living with a toddler will make you keenly aware of how many you use per day.
In truth, each one of these shifts required conscientious habit breaking. There were forgetful or rushed moments where I instinctively grabbed for a paper towel when a reusable cloth would have sufficed. But slowly my new ways became ingrained, and what followed is my current obsession: Identify any remaining eco-unfriendly patterns and find a planet-pleasing solution.
Disclaimer: I am a mom of a 19-month-old living through a pandemic. I am also a design editor and stylist who has dedicated my life’s work to finding and creating beauty. So beyond wanting to minimize my contribution to Mother Nature’s demise, any new products I bring into my routine need to be effective and easy to use (there’s no time for learning curves with a toddler on the loose)—and they have to be pleasing to the senses. Here are the items that passed the test.
The Paper Towel Alternative
Why it’s great: I finally stopped my extensive search for a reusable paper towel substitute once these 12-inch-square, unbleached organic cotton cloths came into my life. They are the ideal combination of absorbent and quick drying (e.g., keep mold and bacteria at bay), extremely durable—and they can replace disposable paper towels completely.
How to use them: For kitchen spills, food-covered toddler faces and hands, wiping down a table post-meal. Afterward, just throw them in the washing machine.
Bonus points: Because these cloths are infinitely reusable, they’ll put you one step closer to having a zero-waste home.
The New Dishwasher
Why it’s great: This sponge is a truly natural take on the ubiquitous (generally made with micro plastics) style I grew up using. Other “eco-friendly” versions I’ve tried are either not as sustainable as they seem or they feel like a compromise. This one—which is completely compostable and biodegradable—gets super-sudsy, and the scrubber side (made from a luffa plant) does the trick.
How to use it: Dishes, pots, pans, countertops—any way you’d use a standard-issue kitchen sponge.
Bonus points: Even the packaging is plastic-free.
Runner-up: If you don’t mind using a separate scrubber, Trader Joe’s Pop-Up Sponges (made from vegetable cellulose) are compostable and come in a pack of 12 for just $8.
The Plastic Brush Replacement
Why it’s great: The greatest hits of scrubbers, this set includes a bottle brush, a pan scrubber, and a handled dish brush (plus a replacement head), all made from beechwood, natural fibers, and a little bit of metal—no planet-polluting plastics here. I’m a sucker for beautifully simple utilitarian items, and as far as dish-washing accessories go, it doesn’t get much prettier than this.
When to use it: You’ll reach for this set when your pots and pans need a tougher scrub and a standard sponge just won’t cut it.
Bonus points: It’s handmade in Germany at a family-owned factory that has been in business for 90 years.
Liquid Dish Soap, No More
Why it’s great: I have to admit, I was skeptical of a solid dish soap at first (I thought it would make an already bothersome chore unnecessarily complicated), but now I am a total convert. Beyond the fact that this soap washes dishes wonderfully, it smells incredible—with notes of lavender, cedarwood, and eucalyptus—is made with earth-friendly ingredients like coconut oil, essential oils, and kaolin clay; and unlike most liquid dish soaps, its packaging is compostable. I’m not being hyperbolic when I say I actually enjoy doing dishes thanks to this soap.
How to use it: Run a wet sponge or scrub brush across the top of the bar to create a lather, then clean away.
Bonus points: You can also use it to hand-wash your delicate clothing, a feature I’ve taken advantage of much more often than expected.
Runners-up: If you’re partial to citrus scents, Ardent Good’s Solid Dish Soap is equally awesome and comes in a refillable ceramic container. If you’re sensitive to scents or prefer no fragrance, No Tox Life and Faded Plains make unscented versions that are both great.
Better Dishwasher Pods
Why it’s great: Unlike most dishwasher pods on the market, these fragrance-free tablets are not coated in a layer of plastic (to later be disposed of in our waterways—gasp!). In fact, they’re plastic-free in every sense—including the packaging and even the shipping materials. Plus I’ve noticed that my glassware comes out of the washer clearer and my silverware brighter, so win-win!
Bonus points: The starter kit comes with a refillable steel tin where you can conveniently stash your stock of tablets, and it’s labeled so guests will know what they’re reaching for, too.
The New Laundry Room Essentials
Why it’s great: With this trifecta, there’s no laundry problem you can’t solve (I’m talking turmeric-stained white sweater realness here). Each can be used on its own, but with their powers combined, stains don’t stand a chance and my laundry comes out brighter. From a sustainability standpoint, powders and solids have a lower environmental impact than liquids (which are heavier to ship and generally come in single-use plastic bottles), and these three products have reusable and/or recyclable packaging and are made from eco-friendly ingredients.
How to use it: I use the laundry soda plus oxygen brightener for any standard wash, and I pretreat stains with the Wow Stick Stain Remover. But if you need to combat a really tough stain, follow the stain stick application with the oxygen brightener and water soak before laundering. I’m blown away by how effective they are.
Bonus points: The oxygen brightener can even be used as a spot remover for carpets.
Runner-up: If you can’t live without a liquid (or prefer a scented detergent), Groove Collaborative’s Ultra-Concentrated Liquid Laundry Detergent is a great option. It comes in two scents (lavender and rosemary; citrus and woods) and is designed to be used with the brand’s Auto-Dosing Reusable Dispenser. After you’ve filled up the dispenser, you can mail the pouch back and the company will recycle it.
No More Dryer Sheets
Why they’re great: These 100 percent wool balls—done in an unexpectedly stylish color palette—reduce drying time (which equals less energy consumption and a happier planet), help combat static and lint, soften fabrics, smooth wrinkles, and eliminate the need for fabric softeners and dryer sheets. Every time I forget to throw them in, I have to run my machine a little longer to completely dry that load.
How to use them: Simply add them to the dryer with your clean, wet clothes, and reuse them for up to 1,000 loads. Put a few drops of an essential oil on them if you’d like to give your laundry a subtle, natural scent.
Bonus points: These are bigger than your average dryer ball (3.5 inches in diameter), meaning they absorb more water.
The Cleaning Products Overhaul
Why they’re great: If, like me, you’re aiming to cut back on the number of single-use plastics in your life, this set is a really good step in the right direction. It includes three itty-bitty glass bottles of nontoxic cleaning concentrate—an all-purpose cleaner, a glass cleaner, and a tub and tile cleaner—that are made without harsh ingredients and designed to be mixed in the brand’s reusable glass spray bottles. They smell great, look pretty (go ahead and leave them out on your counter), reduce the amount you’ll be adding to landfills, and get the job done.
How to use them: Combine the concentrate with 15 ounces of water—each in a separate spray bottle—give them a shake, then get your clean on. Be sure to recycle the glass concentrate bottles when you’re done (but they also make for lovely little bud vases after removing the labels).
Bonus points: Each reusable spray bottle comes with a silicone sleeve that prevents slipping and breakage. They’re available in six colors, so you can assign a color to each cleaning product for easy identification. And because the concentrate bottles are so small, it’s easy to store backups, even if you don’t have tons of storage space.