Should I use up old cleaners or replace them right away?

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
April 21 2009 6:51 AM

Spring Cleaning Your Supply Closet

Should I use up old cleaners or replace them right away?

Now that spring has finally reared its sunny head, it's time for me to start de-griming my house. I'd like to use eco-friendly cleaning products this time around, but I'm still well-stocked with the traditional stuff. Should I just use up what I have or throw away my toxic cleaners right away? And what's the greenest way to dispose of half-full containers?

Spring cleaning can certainly be an unpleasant chore, what with all that scrubbing and spraying and bagging and hauling. The Lantern understands that this task is a lot more agreeable when your cleaning supplies smell like lavender and don't emit irritating fumes. But throwing out usable products violates a major tenet of green living.

The question becomes tricky because for many people, the desire to get rid of chemical-heavy cleaning supplies is based on health concerns. If you've developed a sensitivity to, say, the ammonia in your window cleaner or you have a curious toddler who likes to put stray bottles in her mouth, the Lantern won't press you to keep toxic or corrosive stuff in your house.

Bleach.
Is bleach eco-friendly?

Otherwise, the Lantern suggests finishing up what you've got before upgrading to more responsible products. Yes, certain ingredients found in conventional cleaners—such as phosphates and certain kinds of surfactants —have less-than-desirable impacts on our air and waterways. But that single bottle of countertop cleaner that you're agonizing over? In the grand scheme of things, it'll only have a small impact on the Earth. And chucking it now will have undesirable side effects, too, even if you dispose of it in the most responsible way possible—either you'll be creating more trash, or you'll be placing an increased strain on hazardous-waste facilities. Plus, there's the fact that you'll be squandering all the resources that went into creating the product in the first place. So if your concern is primarily for the environment, use up those cleaners before restocking. (For specific advice on choosing eco-friendly germ-killing cleaners, check out this previous Green Lantern column, or click here.)

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If you do decide to dispose of your old stuff, do it in the proper way. Cleaning products that don't require the use of gloves, like dish soap or laundry detergent, can usually go safely down the drain. These products tend to have relatively balanced pH levels—i.e., they're neither very acidic nor very alkaline—which means they won't adversely affect the microorganisms that help filter out organic material in your wastewater-treatment system. Flush them out with a lot of water, as a precaution.

Harsher stuff like bleaches, disinfectants, and oven cleaners require more care. First, read the labels: Many products that fall under the category of "household hazardous waste"—which generally includes anything toxic, corrosive, flammable, or reactive—will have instructions on proper disposal techniques. Generally speaking, though, you don't want to burn, bury, or toss such products in your trash untreated or pour them straight down the drain. All of these disposal methods can have nasty consequences, like contaminating water supplies or corroding septic systems.

Household hazardous waste isn't regulated under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which means each community deals with it differently. Check online to see what the regulations are in your area. In New York City, for example, where the Lantern lives, corrosive cleaners should be poured on kitty litter, bagged, and then dumped in the trash, along with the bottles.

If at all possible, take your bleaches, drain openers, and oven cleaners to a hazardous-waste facility, where they can be dealt with and disposed of safely, according to RCRA guidelines.Highly acidic or alkaline cleaners can be neutralized, for example, then processed at a regular water-treatment facility. Flammable liquids like furniture polish can be blended with commercial fuels, then used in high-temperature cement kilns. Substances that can't be reused or chemically deactivated are destroyed through incineration. (Getting access to a hazardous-waste facility isn't always easy, however. Some municipalities have drop-off centers, while others sponsor occasional collection days. But these kinds of programs can be cost-prohibitive for many communities—which is why, when they are offered, they're usually limited to residents.)

If you don't have access to a waste-treatment facility, you can always donate your old supplies. There are probably lots of cash-strapped nonprofits in your neighborhood that would love to have your unwanted chlorine bleach and spray cleaners. Of course, this solution leads to an ethical question that vexes many an environmentalist: If it's not good enough for your home, why should it be OK for someone else's? The Lantern's personal opinion is that people should be trusted to determine their own levels of acceptable risk, so you should go ahead and try to find a new home for your old stuff if you can. But perhaps this is a question better directed at the Lantern's colleague, Slate morality minder Prudence.

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