Tuesday, March 29, 2011

On Green [the environment and $$$] and Cleaning

I had the following discussion with a couple of friends and decided to see what you, my readers, have to say on the subject. The conversation centered around cleaning--what else this time of year--and "being green." In particular we were discussing the use of paper towels in cleaning versus using shmattes (rags). Read any of the green blogs or sites and you'll see that using paper towels gets a no-no--too many trees wasted. However, our discussion pointed out some things the green blogs don't mention when they come out against paper towels.

In discussing cleaning we were talking about the heavy duty kind that goes by the name of Spring cleaning. Items that may not be touched the rest of the year get cleaned at least this one time during the year. This is not light dusting nor is it, for many, lick and a promise cleaning. A lot of the cleaning that is tackled is greasy, grimy dirt. The point was made that those shmattes used for some of this work need to be washed thoroughly or they can't go back to work--bleach, detergent and softener and yes, hot water or the gucky stuff doesn't come off the rags.

If you are tackling this type of cleaning you would need a really large supply of the shmattes. Either you go looking for old towels and undershirts that you are going to replace (and that costs money) or you are buying some (and that costs money too). If you don't have that large supply then you are going to be doing way more loads of wash so that the shmattes can be used again (and that also costs money).

So, what is the cost to the environment for doing loads (yes, loads in the plural) of wash for the rags versus the cost to the environment for using paper towels?
Even if you are using "green" cleaning products, once they are in the water of the washing machine they are going down the drain literally and that cleanser laden water is eventually going to find an outlet, either in the earth or into a waterway.

Is the "cost" of using paper towels really so much higher for the environment than what washing those shmattes might be doing?
When those shmattes get frayed and stained they are going to be tossed out. What is the disintegration time in landfills for heavy cloth as compared to thin paper towels? And then there was the non-green cost that came up. Figure the price of having to wash those cloths and dry them--detergents, hot water and heating up the dryer. Now look at that cost against the number of paper towels that might be used if you use them instead of shmattes.

I use a combination of paper towels and shmattes, depending on what has to be cleaned. It is both literally and figuratively a wash as to the cost as far as I can see. Given what I can figure out, both choices can have negative impact on the environment and/or the budget. Here's the thing though--things have to be cleaned and you are going to have to use something to do that cleaning with. This doesn't seem to be a case where you can say "use neither."

Note: I'm aware that some people use sponges to do some of this cleaning with--I also use them when called for. Sponges also come with plusses and minuses. You need to rinse them frequently, thus sending detergent and grime laden water into the sewer, and most of our sponges are made of cellulose--not so easily bio-degradable when they are thrown out. They are also not the best tools for certain types of cleaning that require a larger size work tool to absorb what is being wiped up. You work for longer if you use a sponge than if you use a shmatte or a paper towel.

So, are you a shmatte or a paper towel cleaner and why your choice?


leahle said...

This is where philosophy and the practical have a collision. I've got a very limited amount of time to do all that messy cleaning and there are plenty of other extra things that need to be washed without adding in cleaning cloths. I use paper towels as many as I need. A few jobs I use the rags for but those are mostly dry jobs instead of wet jobs.

Abba's Rantings said...

this sounds reminiscent to the cloth vs. disposable diaper debate

tesyaa said...

When those shmattes get frayed and stained they are going to be tossed out.

Really??? You throw out stained, frayed rags? I make rags out of old clothing that got stained and frayed! If a rag has axle grease or something similar on it and can't be washed, I throw it away. But otherwise, they just get washed and used over & over again.

I wonder - do some people scrub and iron their rags?

Read this post (an oldie but goodie) in which the blogger's mother complains that the blogger's rags are too raggy:


JS said...

These kinds of debates are difficult to have because some people are so ideological that no amount of evidence will ever make them change their opinion. The dirty little secret of the push for "green" is that the total costs to the environment are often the same or that it's difficult to ascertain if there's a net plus or minus. Take Compact Fluorescent lights. They use FAR less electricity and they last MUCH longer, but when they die, they have dangerous mercury in them. Is this a plus? A minus? Who knows! I've read that disposable versus cloth diapers also have the types of pluses and minuses associated with rags versus paper towels.

The debate kind of reminds me of some community members where we used to live who were trying to recruit my wife to sell Avon type products. They'd go on and on about how much money they made the previous month. My wife would then ask what the products cost them. They had no idea. They were all mistaking revenue for profit. It's the same here. The benefits may be great, but there are costs too - many of which are hidden from the end consumer as well.

Green is definitely good, but it does no one any good to only look at half of the equation. If we really want to help the environment we need to consider all factors.

Personally, I use lots of paper towels except where it makes sense to keep reusing a rag - like drying up a floor after washing it.

Anonymous said...

I own paper towels just because my husband uses them (occasionally). Rags come naturally in my house, all you do is wait for something to wear out. No problem to throw them in the washer, even water will clean them pretty well. And I mainly use vinegar to clean. AND, you can throw them in your compost heap when they're too yucky to use again. Win win win.

ProfK said...


Just a few comments. Cleaning "pretty well" is unacceptable when rags are greasy or grimy. Leave any grease on the rags and the minute you wet them again you will be spreading a film of grease and grime on the new surface you are tackling.

I also use vinegar to clean with but it doesn't clean every surface and is a no-no for certain types of materials.

Re the compost heap, yes and no. According to the scientists of our government, and some that aren't government affiliated, decomposition time for a pure cotton rag is about 1-5 months, the same amount of time that it takes for that paper towel to decompose. If you put rags on the compost heap you can also put used paper towels there and get the same effect. Also, check the label of the item the rags come from. A whole lot of those "pure" cotton items that are sold are not so pure. Many are blends with synthetics. Those synthetics in the nylon family can take 20-40 years to decompose, and some take longer.