Do you want to clean green?
When I originally wrote the previous two posts (on vacuums and other tools), I was interested in sharing general cleaning information, and didn't delve too deeply into the ecological ramifications of the tools I was recommending. I'd like to address the deeper ecological issues here.
Most of us in North America can't live without one. Our homes are filled with wall-to-wall carpeting and huge expanses of tile, vinyl, or hardwood flooring. The most efficient way to remove dust and dirt from all of those surfaces is with a vacuum cleaner.
But keep in mind that vacuums consume energy in their production and their end use, and are difficult to recycle once their lifespan is complete. Many have casings and parts made of plastic and other petrochemical products like PVC, which use non-renewable resources and can outgas for several months when brand new. Without adequate (HEPA) filters and bags, they can spew allergens into your home's air during use. And don't forget the noise pollution they create! (Do yourself a favour and always use earplugs when running a vacuum cleaner.)
One option might be to buy a used vacuum - many are available from vacuum dealers and repair shops. Be aware, however, that an older vacuum may not be HEPA-compliant, and may have been treated with strong artificial scents to mask the unpleasant odour of dust in the motor and inner parts. I once used a second-hand vacuum that clients bought from a dealer when their original vacuum died, and I found the filter had been impregnated with a sickly-sweet fragrance that gave me a vicious migraine. The clients had to wash the (reusable) filter before I could use the machine again.
The best vacuums to buy from an eco-friendly standpoint? If you want to reduce your carbon footprint (i.e. reduce your use of plastics), try to find a vacuum with a metal casing. It will be heavier, but can be recycled for scrap when its lifespan is finished. Tristar is one brand that makes metal canister vacuums. Be aware, however, that they still use a lot of PVC in the units, and they outgas a very strong odour for quite some time after you bring them home.
If you are concerned about allergens, purchase a vacuum with HEPA filters and/or bags. Reduce your need for frequent vacuuming by removing all shoes and outer footwear at your doors when you come inside. This will make a huge difference in the amount of dust you track through your home. Try vacuuming less-trafficked areas less frequently. Many of my former clients could get away with once-monthly vacuuming in areas like bedrooms. This won't work for you if allergens are a problem, however.
Try dry mopping or sweeping hard floors instead of vacuuming them. Brush or bathe your pets frequently to reduce the amount of pet hair on your floors and furniture.
Can you get along without a vacuum? If you don't have carpeting, it's possible. I live in an apartment with hardwood, tile and linoleum flooring, and I have managed to get by with only a small, hand-held Dustbuster-type vacuum since I moved in last September. I regularly dry mop my floors, and the few small area rugs that I use are easily shaken, brushed or laundered clean.
About mops and brooms:
I mentioned the problems with Swiffer cloths and Swiffer wet mops in my previous post. The most eco-friendly mops to buy would be made from natural, renewable resources, and would be biodegradable once their natural lifespan is finished. Corn brooms, wooden-handled dry mops (with cotton or rayon pads) and string mops (with cotton strings) fit into this category, and are easily found at most hardware stores. They're not always the easiest or most efficient tools to use, however - and with string mops, you have to make sure the mop head dries out thoroughly between uses, or it will attract mold and mildew.
(I have yet to find a source for organic mop pads or string mops, but if you're at all handy you could probably make these yourself. Let me know if you do find an online source!)
Mops and brooms with metal handles and replaceable heads would be my second choice. They are very durable, and the metal can be recycled for scrap at the end of the mop's life. Vileda Bee wet mops fall under this category. The sponge mop heads are made from petrochemicals, but last a long time and are easily replaceable.
Least desirable from an eco-friendly standpoint would be plastic brooms and mops with synthetic straws and heads. They are a breeze to clean, and won't mold or mildew as easily when wet, but use non-renewable resources in their manufacture and are not recyclable.
Metal (galvanized or stainless steel) is recyclable; plastic can be recycled (check the bottom for the plastic recycling number - mine reads #2, HDPE), but unfortunately, consumers don't often recycle broken plastic buckets and bins. Wooden buckets (yes, they're available - try doing an online search for reproduction buckets) are renewable and biodegradable, but may not be watertight and can promote mold and mildew growth if not thoroughly dried between uses.
As I mentioned in my previous post, rags are easy to make yourself from recycled cotton fabric or towels. My favorite rags are made from old cotton terry towels; I buy them at rummage and yard sales. I'll write more on making and caring for rags in a future post.
Microfibre cleaning cloths have become very popular in the last few years, and you may have tried them and enjoy using them in your own cleaning. Be aware, however, that they are made from petrochemicals and are not recyclable (even though they are reusable, and can last for years with regular use). If you love your microfibre cloths, take good care of them so that you don't have to replace them often. Personally I never liked the feel of them in my hands - the microfibres always seemed to "catch" on any roughness on my skin, and because they're synthetic, they are not at all absorbent.
You may be wondering about sponges. I used cellulose sponges for years in my cleaning, but was never happy with the sanitary issues surrounding them. In the end I gave up using sponges, and now use natural-fibre rags exclusively in all my cleaning. Rags are easier to clean and disinfect if necessary.