Environmental impacts

The biggest impact of cleaning products comes from the chemicals which they contain, but the packaging they come in is also an issue. If you are concerned read more below, and see our what you can do suggestions.

Non-biodegradable and toxic chemicals

The major concern is the chemicals which cleaning products contain. There are thousands of chemicals in common use and many have not been tested for safety, though the effects of many are known. They may pollute streams and rivers and may take a long time to degrade into harmless products. Some may not break down at all but may persist in the environment. These may enter the food chain, being eaten by aquatic creatures and perhaps eventually by us. When consumed or absorbed through the skin, they may have harmful effects, be toxic, cause cancer or cause birth defects. The Natural Collection website has a ‘dotguide’ to chemicals which provides a summary, with references, of some of the problems.

Greenpeace’s ‘Chemical Home’ campaign sought a ban on the use of the most toxic products. Greenpeace identified domestic products that frequently contain chemicals from the European Union list of chemicals “Of Very High Concern”. These may be found in carpets and curtains, toys and televisions, computers, cosmetics and perfumes, but rarely labelled and never seen. As part of their campaign, Greenpeace compiled a list of products which do not contain these harmful chemicals. Under the new EU chemical law, REACH, finally approved in December 2006 companies will have to provide safety data for large volume chemicals that they produce or import into Europe. REACH will cover 30,000 of the 100,000 chemicals available on the EU market.

Detergents are all now biodegradable, though some may break down quicker than others, but they often contain chemicals which may cause problems. Phosphates can cause eutrophication, upsetting the balance of nutrients in rivers and streams, while many products also contain enzymes, bleaches, brighteners and perfumes. People with sensitive skin or allergies may find these substances may aggravate their condition.

Packaging

Not only are there innumerable products but they come in a great range of packages. Many products used to come in aerosol cans, containing a propellant gas, often chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) which, although non-toxic and chemically inert, were proven to damage the ozone layer. The Montreal Protocol set targets for reductions in CFC use and most aerosols now use ‘ozone-friendly’ propellants. But aerosol cans still contain a high proportion of packaging to contents and are not easy to recycle. Many products come in plastic containers which are light and durable and can be recycled in some areas, but otherwise are very slow to biodegrade. You may be able to buy refills, and buying concentrated products or in bulk also reduces the amount of packaging.

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