Zero waste spring cleaning

Being inside all winter makes any home feel stuffy, so once the sun peeks out and the ground begins to thaw it’s tempting to throw on a sundress and decide to reinvent yourself, organize, and begin your new life with the new season. Or maybe that’s just me.

Like anything, spring cleaning is as wasteful as you make it. Making conscious choices about what we use to clean and how we organize can keep spring cleaning simple and green.


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Tools

Before starting to clean, check out what you already have. Chances are, this isn’t your first time cleaning, but if you know you need to replace any of your tools, try and choose greener options.

Sponges

Most cleaning sponges are made of plastic, not cellulose like you may have heard. That means as the sponges degrade and breakdown from use, little bits of the polymers (plastic) escape into the environment or down the drain.

After your current sponges are no longer usable, switch to compostable sponges or use a cleaning cloth instead. While a cloth isn’t suitable for all cleaning, a dish rag does the trick for the kitchen.

Brushes

For a hard bristle brush, I use a vegetable brush with a wooden handle. Mine is imperfect, however, because the bristles eventually soften as they become saturated, but are stiff again when the brush dries. To replace plastic scouring pads or the scratchy side of our beloved plastic sponges, I suggest using either steel wool or coarse salt. Steel wool, being made of metal, seems a good alternative to plastic scrubbies because it breaks down, and in theory, should return to nature. As an alternative, I use coarse salt, baking soda, and cold water to scrub. The cold water helps avoid dissolving the abrasive salt and baking soda for as long as possible.

Dusting

If you dust, chances are that whatever you’re using now will do the trick. I dust with old socks stretched over my hands, and I find they pick up the dust very well. If that method isn’t for you, any rag will do for wiping down dusty surfaces. If your heart is set on a specific tool for dusting, here is one DIY you can do using old clothes or towels, just skip the microfiber because is typically just a conglomeration of other plastic fabrics.

All-purpose cleaner

To be honest, I don’t have a recipe for zero waste all purpose cleaner; I’m not one for measuring. I like to mix a few drops of dish soap, some vinegar, and hot water to use as a surface cleaner. As an alternative to liquid soap, I run hot water over a bar of soap so that it lathers into the liquid. For these cleaners to be effective they ought to be made fresh for each use. If you want an exact recipe, check here. Save a spray bottle from a hair care or cleaning product and use that to spray your all-purpose cleaner; buying new items, even stainless steel or glass, to store your zero waste creations is not the point. The most sustainable option is the one that already exists, even if it’s not as nice to look at.

I use this all-purpose cleaner for everything from cleaning baseboards to the stove top to mopping. Many recipes call for baking soda as well, which I add occasionally but not always because I sometimes find it leaves behind a residue on surfaces.  

Disinfecting

As for disinfecting, the research we have simply doesn’t indicate that vinegar and baking soda are as effective as commercial disinfectants at killing germs. While these two popular zero waste cleaning products do have some effect and are great for surface cleaning, we need to be honest about their shortcomings. Laura at Waste-Free Ph.D. does this beautifully here.

Beyond that, you may wonder about cleaners made with ethyl alcohols (the ones we drink) like vodka. This alcohol evaporates quickly and isn’t suitable for complete medical disinfection, but our homes don’t exactly need hospital-grade disinfection. Ethyl alcohol at 60-80% is effective against viruses like the flu, herpes and the common cold, however, this concentration is what we find in hand sanitizer, not vodka. Chlorine bleach, on the other hand, really does stand up to its reputation, and the CDC says these products have a “broad spectrum of antimicrobial activity, do not leave toxic residues, are unaffected by water hardness, are inexpensive and fast acting, remove dried or fixed organisms and biofilms from surfaces, and have a low incidence of serious toxicity”. In other words, bleach really works, for hard or soft water, for surfaces, and against microbes (1).

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windows

I think regularly cleaning windows must be some kind of myth, but eventually they must be cleaned, especially if you have pets or children who smudge the surfaces. After cleaning windows with a liquid cleaner like an all-purpose cleaner, they can be wiped with newspapers to avoid streaking and lint from using paper towels while getting more use of a preexisting resource.

Clothes

It’s not spring at all if you don’t switch out your winter clothes for lighter fabrics and colors. If you live somewhere like me, you’ll probably get at least one more snowstorm before spring really comes, but it’s still a good time to evaluate your wardrobe.

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Any cold-wear that you didn’t wear this winter can go; give it to a friend or family member who will make use of the resource, consign it online or in-person, or donate it. Look at the clothes you stored away for warmer weather and determine what you will actually wear this year and what you are sure you won’t. It can be hard to simply give something away, so if you’re unsure, I suggest taking it out of your closet and putting it in a holding space. If during the next month or two you wear a piece, add it back to the wardrobe; if you don’t reach for it in the next two months, pass it along so that the resource can be used.

menstrual cup

If you are forgetful or don’t do it every month, spring clean your menstrual cup by at least boiling it. This should occur more than annually, of course, but it’s worth mentioning.

brushes

If you wear makeup, you probably haven’t cleaned your makeup brushes recently because, honestly, who actually does? I use regular soap, vinegar and hot water. If you use waterproof makeup that wont come off without water, makeup remover or some kind of oil might be necessary to get it off the bristles.

I like to clean my hair brush as well because the blend of dry shampoo and dead skin from my scalp isn’t so appealing. Remove all of the hair stuck in your brush and scrub it with another brush with bristles, although ideally a brush designed for cleaning and not hair.

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Food

If you participated in the zero waste shopping ban, you remember eating through the forgotten food in your pantry. To reiterate what that might look like- eat what is in your fridge and make it a point to eat your leftovers quickly to reduce the chance they go bad. And while we’re talking about spring cleaning, make your diet greener by eating fewer (or no) animal products. If you eat meat, try and make at least one meal a day vegetarian and if you’re vegetarian, try and make at least one meal a day vegan. To be clear, there aren’t enough straws or opportunities in a year to refuse a straw will make up for the negative impact of a diet laden with animal products.

jars

Reusing something that already exists requires fewer resources than recycling, so if you have a cupboard of jars you’ve been saving to reuse, take spring cleaning as an opportunity to remove the labels. This post recommends using oil and baking soda to help remove stuck-on paper and glue, and while jars with residue are harmless, it’s nice to have a cleaner look.

Microwave

I’ve never understood the obsession with cleaning products meant only for a single surface, so all purpose cleaner and scrubbing is my go-to. As suggested here, if you have a microwave full of greasy splatter, you can clean that off by heating water and vinegar in the microwave to make steam, which will soften the gunk. Then it can be easily removed with a soapy sponge.

dishwasher

Even if you run your dishwasher regularly, they do have a tendency to smell musty. Rather than buying dishwasher cleaner, there seems to be a popular method that includes running the dishwasher through two short, hot cycles. One cycle uses vinegar to help dissolve any grease or stuck on gunk and the other uses baking soda to help deodorize. If you know how to remove the food trap from your dishwasher, make sure to empty it as well because it can be a source of smells. What you find in the trap could be compostable if it doesn’t contain any animal products, but it might be best to dispose of it otherwise just in case.

Washing machine

Like the dishwasher, washing machines are wet and can develop a smell, especially if they are closed tightly between washes. If you have a machine with programmable cycles, you can run through the washing machine with baking soda and vinegar like with the dishwasher. This post suggests using bleach if you have mold anywhere in the washing machine, but that can be skipped if it’s not an issue for you. Unfortunately, I can’t attest to this method because my machine is not at all programmable for me to run it through intentional cycles instead of just wasting water.

Plant a tree

Since you’ve managed to clean your home, take some time and help clean the air. According to the Arbor Day Foundation, a single tree can absorb 48 pounds of CO2 a year, which is the equivalent to charging a smartphone 2,429 times, while also releasing oxygen into the atmosphere. Each day, a mature tree releases enough oxygen for four people and it’s even been estimated by the U.S. Forest Service that trees save the lives of about eight New Yorkers each year.

Trash on a hiking trail in a state park

Trash on a hiking trail in a state park

If you live somewhere that you are able to plant a tree directly into the earth, do so yourself. If not, there are various organizations you can donate to in order to have trees be planted. Nationalforests.org will plant a tree for a dollar, as will onetreeplanted.org. Long story short, if you can’t plant a tree yourself, check out some organizations and donate yourself, even if it’s only a dollar.

Pick up litter

Spring clean the world around you. Zero waste has an obvious connection to reducing pollution, because if we’re not making unnecessary waste, there won’t be as much to escape into the environment. Still, take a walk down your street, along the road or in a park and pick up as much trash as you can hold; make sure it’s properly disposed of somewhere that it won’t blow away into nature. It’s icky, it’s true, but wearing a pair of gloves makes it a breeze.


From where I stand, spring feels very far away, but throwing open the windows on the first early spring day makes everything feel new again. Wishing you a clean home, sweet spring, and happy zero wasting!