Check the back of nearly any conventional cleaning product, and you are confronted with an entire paragraph of confusing words for unknown chemicals – sometimes, hundreds of them.  It would take a huge amount of research to know which of those chemicals could be harmful to you, your family, or the environment.

Using conventional cleaning products in small amounts, and in well-ventilated areas, likely won’t cause any harm to the individual.  However, when we clean our homes we typically use a whole range of products for specific purposes – glass cleaners, countertop cleaners, floor cleaners, shower cleaners… the list goes on.  The more chemicals we use in our homes, the more exposure we receive to them, and that can add up over time, week in and week out.

Many conventional cleaners contain volatile organic compounds, or VOCs.  We’ve written before about VOCs in paint.  VOCs are the source of the headache-inducing chemical smell that is produced when using a cleaner at home.  These chemical compounds are used to cheaply improve the performance of a product, but can have serious consequences for human health – they have been linked to neurological disorders and kidney failure in laboratory animals, just to name a few consequences.  VOCs linger in the residue of cleaning products, even when they’re not visible – they continued to be inhaled even after cleaning is finished.  As Grist reports, home air fresheners contain significant amounts of VOCs and have been linked to a 25% increase in headaches and 19% more occurrences of depression in homes where they are used, versus homes where they are not.

Even smaller amounts of cleaner can have detrimental effects on the environment.  Dishwashing detergents often contain phosphates, which soften water and are a cheap way to make dish detergents more effective.   But the environmental cost is substantial.  When phosphates enter the watershed they enrich the water with nutrients that algae feed on, producing huge “blooms” of algae that consume all oxygen in the surrounding water.  Water that is depleted of oxygen – or that is hypoxic – is uninhabitable by most marine life.  The consequence is huge “dead zones” where there is no sea life, apart from algal blooms.  One of the largest and most infamous dead zone is in the Gulf of Mexico, which is fed by nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from the Mississippi River.  While that dead zone is fed largely by agricultural runoff, home fertilizers – and home cleaners – also contribute.

this graphic, from the new york times, depicts the hypoxic zone in the gulf of mexico -- a phenomenon produced, in part, by the runoff of phosphates, often found in conventional cleaners

There are more environmental consequences than hypoxia: conventional cleaners use chemicals that can disrupt the endocrine systems of marine life; some chemicals can affect the alkalinity of water, harming marine organisms; and others contain chemical compounds such as DDBSA that are corrosive to metal and organic tissue, including human tissue.  If cleaning chemicals can produce these harmful effects on marine life, are they products that the consumer wants in their home – that not only release the chemicals into the home environment when they are use (and inhaled!), but linger and offgas for indeterminate amounts of time?

For the sake of personal health and the environment, then, it becomes imperative to use green cleaning products, and other green products that are free of the kinds of pollutants and toxins which poison our bodies and land.

Fortunately, numerous alternatives are available.  Some are more effective – both in terms of cleaning power and in healthfulness – than others.  Some, in particular, are pure greenwash – while they profess to be “all-natural,” they are indeed chemical and potentially dangerous.  There are no federal criteria to regulate products advertized as “all-natural” and packaging can therefore be terrifically misleading.  Some “all-natural” cleaners are made from petroleum-derived products – all-natural because petroleum is naturally-occurring.

So, we should choose green cleaners because they are kinder on our health, our homes, and our environment.  And we should ensure we choose green products that are legitimately green, and not just greenwash.  There are, fortunately, truly ecologically-sound alternatives available to the consumer.

These products, contrasted to their conventional counterparts, are plant-derived, rather than petroleum-derived; they are biodegradable, meaning they won’t linger in waterways and contribute to hypoxia; and they are effective, meaning the consumer does not have to sacrifice performance for health and environmental benefits.

Green Depot carries a huge catalogue of green products, and produces its own line of green cleaners (locally-produced in the New York City area).  They are even refillable at our station on the Bowery – meaning you won’t even have to recycle your old bottles.

photo credit to flickr user hypoxia&eutrophication.

Installing a new wood floor? Instead of traditional hardwood, you may want to consider an eco-friendly alternative: bamboo. It may be hard to imagine that reedy green plant growing wild in your yard making a good flooring material, but some varieties of bamboo (when mature and properly dried) are as hard as oak–and some are even harder.

Photo: chefranden at Flickr.com

Green Depot carries bamboo flooring by Foundations, a New York state-based company that offers click-together “floating” strand boards, as well as traditional tongue-and-groove solid-strip options, both in prefinished and unfinished varieties. Foundation’s strand planks are made of the Moso variety of bamboo, which proves to be two times harder than red oak when subjected to the industry-standard Janka ball test. And Moso isn’t a natural food supply for a pandas, so harvesting it even in the wild doesn’t endanger their habitat.

But why else is bamboo such a good choice? The reasons are many, beginning with bamboo’s rapid renewability, which makes it one of the greenest of green products used in building. A tree takes 80 to 120 years to grow to a size where it can be harvested for hardwood flooring planks, but a bamboo plant reaches maturity in only 3 to 6 years with minimal (if any) fertilization or pesticides, and it renews itself without replanting. This means it requires not only fewer natural resources to thrive, but less labor, as well. And bamboo can easily grow up to a foot a day, so it’s not just fast, but plentiful.

Photo: Ajari at Flickr.com

Bamboo is also a boon to the natural environment itself, in a number of ways. Mature bamboo has a very complex and dense root structure (which, incidentally, is why is can be so hard to get out of your garden), which goes a long way to avoid soil erosion in areas where it’s planted. Furthermore, a bamboo forest absorbs up to twice as much carbon dioxide as trees.

From a social responsibility perspective, as well, bamboo is winner—600 million people worldwide depend on income from it, and the industry employs nearly 6 million people in China alone. And as it grows in popularity, those numbers only expand.

Then there’s affordability, which ties back to bamboo’s ability to renew itself rapidly. The laws of supply and demand are at work here: A product that springs back into place quickly and with so little effort and expense can easily be kept in abundant supply, so prices for it can be lower, even in times of great demand. And its durability gives it another layer of affordability, as many kinds of bamboo flooring can go for long periods without refinishing or replacement. Several brands, including Foundations, coat their pre-finished planks with multiple layers of a water-based, zero-VOC, aluminum oxide-infused polyurethane that doesn’t off-gas at all. Nice!

And that’s not even touching on the design options bamboo flooring offers. Bamboo is available in any number of colors, many of which can be achieved using eco-friendly methods. Heating bamboo makes it darken to a rich amber color without the use of stain, and bleaching it in non-toxic hydrogen peroxide gives it a birchlike white-blond color. Its natural tone is a warm golden hue that lies somewhere in between the two, and bamboo can be colored with traditional wood stains to take it to anywhere from a medium chestnut brown to a near-black ebony.

Bamboo’s narrow-strand structure allows it to be pressed into planks in a number of different formats, unlike wood, which of course comes naturally bound into wide pieces (tree trunks). Some bamboo flooring manufacturers even offer planks made of mixed dark- and light-colored strands, for an unusual streaky look. Still others turn the plant’s fibers the short way, so the cut ends of the stalks are what make up the visible surface. The effect is a sort of small-dot pattern that is unique to bamboo.

As a side note, Green Depot also carries Plybam, an excellent companion to bamboo flooring. Plybam is plywood made entirely of bamboo instead of wood veneer, and it’s perfect for use in cabinetry, furniture, paneling or any other project that usually calls for plywood. Its edges have a multidirectional pattern that offers an alternative to plywood’s striped edges, and is attractive enough to make edge veneers a thing of the past.