The cost of being eco: cleaning products

Eco-champion Lauren Bravo, author of ‘How to break up with Fast Fashion’ explores whether more sustainable cleaning products are as good for your wallet as they are for the planet

Whether you’re a Mrs Hinch disciple or a member of the ‘that’ll do’ brigade, cleaning is a fact of life. But with the modern army of household sprays, scrubs and liquids usually bottled in single-use plastic, it’s a dirty secret that the keener our cleaning becomes, the bigger the carbon footprint we leave behind.

The environmental cost of plastics

From the oil and gas mined to make it and the chemical processes used to create it, to the noxious business of incinerating it, burying it in landfill or dumping it in the ocean once we’re done, plastic is one of the most energy-intensive materials on earth. Recycling could help to make a dent in demand – but despite 79% of UK adults claiming we recycle at least three quarters of the plastic waste produced in our homes, official government figures show that only 46% actually ends up being processed. Since its dawn in the 1950s, of the 8.3 billion tonnes of virgin plastic produced worldwide, only 9% has been recycled.

The new generation of cleaning products

Clearly it’s time to turn the tide. But if going back to vinegar and baking powder doesn’t appeal, there’s a new generation of direct-to-consumer household brands which promise to reduce plastic waste and make cleaning greener, without letting standards slip. A typical cleaning spray contains at least 90% water and less than 10% actual product, they say, so why are we paying to wrap it in plastic and transport it around? The solution: concentrated tablets or paper sachets containing only the active cleaning ingredients, which you dilute yourself at home like a fizzy vitamin (do not drink).

Usually sold with starter kits containing reusable glass or recycled plastic bottles, the emphasis is on minimal packaging, natural ingredients and subscription models that cut out the middleman and save you a trip to the supermarket. One such brand, Homethings, calculates that its refill tablets generate 90% less CO2 than a single-use plastic bottle. But can refillables save us money too, or will they clean out our wallets?

What’s the cost of switching?

With refills typically around the £2-£3 mark, often with postage costs on top, it’s fair to say most just-add-water brands are often more comparable to premium, eco-friendly products like Method and Ecover than their budget equivalents. But don’t be dazzled by trendy branding. If you’re less bothered about having chic bottles on your shelves, pocket-friendly options like Ocean Saver (£14.99 for a five-bottle starter kit and £1.50 for refills thereafter) and Smol (£10 for three bottles and £1 per refill thereafter) work out roughly the same as the supermarket, or even cheaper. Meanwhile tap water costs an average of 0.1p per litre, so that’s barely going to eat into your margins.

The other eco-friendly alternatives

If you have the space, buying in bulk can bring down costs too. Look out for industrial-sized ‘bag in a box’ refills from brands like Fill, Splosh and Ecover, which can work out at less than £2 per litre – equivalent to Dettol. Or if you’re happy to head out and top up your bottles the old-fashioned way, in-store refilling stations are becoming a more common sight in corner shops and supermarkets as well as dedicated zero-waste stores (the Refill app can help you locate your nearest one).

Again, pricier brands tend to be the ones you’ll find on tap, so don’t expect huge savings. But if we’re ever going to clean up our plastic waste problem, the future is BYOB.

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