Deep-cleaning my house tends to leave me with a lot of plastic bags, paper, and plastic containers to throw away. It got me wondering how I could make my cleaning routines less wasteful.
Scientists are developing new ways to recycle plastic, but it’s not an Earth-friendly material, and cleaning supplies use a lot of it. Common solutions like disinfecting sprays and soaps are largely composed of water, which makes those products heavy and hard to ship efficiently. Excessive packaging is another factor of cleaning-product waste, as are harmful chemicals that can end up in the water supply (or in you). Add in the risk of microplastic shedding and a gazillion greenwashed Instagram ads, and it can be difficult to know how to make things clean and a bit more green.
Below are some of my favorite cleaning products that try to be environmentally conscious. They won’t feel too different from what you’re already using and are relatively affordable. Whether you fully abandon plastic bags or simply cut back on your paper towel usage, taking one or two small steps toward a more eco-friendly routine can make the end result that much more satisfying. For the ultimate cheap minimalist cleaning solution, baking soda and vinegar paired with elbow grease will do the trick for many tasks. (But it can harm specific materials like aluminum, so do your research.) Don’t see anything you like? Be sure to check out our other sustainable guides, like our guide to the Best Reusable Products and the Best Recycled Products.
Updated April 2022: We’ve refreshed this guide with updated pricing, links, and product recommendations.
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Eco-Friendly Cleaners for the Whole House
Several cleaning solution makers offer general-use products you’d typically buy in spray bottles. All of the brands mentioned here also take additional steps like offering refills, using simpler ingredients, or shipping without plastic. The products below all work just fine, so go with whichever fits your cleaning style, budget, and aesthetic goals—because, yes, they’re all nice to look at.
Supernatural’s kit is pricey, but it goes on sale a few times per year. The glass spray bottles are hefty (in a good way), and the silicone bottoms keep the bottles in place. The nozzles don’t clog or get jammed, though the bottles can leak if you don’t twist the lid closed carefully. The glass concentrate vials contain blends of essential oils designed for windows and mirrors, counters and granite, bath and tile, or wood and floors. The products smell amazing—like fresh botanicals, not artificial or chemical like most cleaning solutions. This set is the only one I’ve continued to purchase refills for.
Blueland’s cheap refills come in the form of dissolvable tablets. You’ll get a few recyclable acrylic Forever Bottles by purchasing a $39 starter kit. Starter kit refills include hand soap, bathroom cleaner, glass and mirror cleaner, and multipurpose cleaner. Blueland also offers laundry soap, dishwashing essentials, and various accessories. You can mix and match products to suit your needs. Everything I tried smelled great and worked well. The tablets can take a little while to dissolve, so mix the solutions up an hour or two before you plan to tackle your chores.
The $69 starter kit gets you a 34-ounce bottle of sustainable concentrated cleaning solution, spray bottles with fill lines for easy dilution, and a tub of Oxygen Boost powder. You’ll get enough concentrate for three bottles each of all-purpose cleaner, glass cleaner, bathroom cleaner, and foaming wash, plus a 64-load laundry bottle. The unscented concentrate is powerful and made from simple ingredients. You can also buy it separately and supply your own bottles. Fans of nice-smelling cleaners might find this set lacking, but a few drops of essential oils would liven things up in the olfactory department.
Grove’s cleaning concentrates are available in a three-pack. You’ll get all-purpose, glass, and tub-and-tile cleaners. Dump the contents into 16-ounce bottles (also on Grove’s site) and fill up with water. I especially like the glass cleaner, which works better than Windex—and smells nicer.
This $4 bio-based product isn’t sold in concentrates, but I’m including it here because I didn’t try anything else like it. It has no fragrance and no color. It almost feels like you’re cleaning with water. If you’re really sensitive to fragrances, to the point where “lightly scented” still gives you a headache, this is what you’re looking for.
For the Kitchen
After testing, I permanently converted to using this dish soap. It’s made of plant-based ingredients, and the biodegradable formula gets the job done. It doesn’t dry out my hands as much as the stuff I used to use.
These fast-drying biodegradable cloths are made of cellulose and cotton. Unlike typical washcloths, these don’t get smelly or mildewy. You can wash them up to 200 times in your washing machine or the top rack of your dishwasher. The eye-catching designs are a bonus. Mine started degrading after a couple months of use but lasted longer than similar products I tried.
I didn’t want to love this extremely popular, cheery sponge, but it lives up to the hype. The shape and texture make it weirdly effective for scrubbing, wiping, and suds. I use it for everything from doing my dishes to cleaning my floors. It’s also more durable than other similarly priced sponges. While the sponge itself isn’t especially sustainable, Scrub Daddy products are recyclable, making them a better option than sponges you’d throw away.
These bright cotton flannel towels are durable and really absorbent. They get even more absorbent after a few washes. They also cling together, so you can roll them up on a cardboard tube just like the paper alternatives.
If you prefer more traditional paper towels, these strike a good balance between familiarity and sustainability. They’re made of bamboo—no trees. The towels aren’t the softest, but they are absorbent and don’t fall apart or shed easily. For gross or quick tasks like cleaning up cat hairballs, or cooking residue on my stove, I feel less guilty throwing these out than a tree-based paper towel.
These sweeper pads are a sturdier, less wasteful alternative to disposable mop pads. They work with Swiffer mops and similar systems, and they can be used wet or dry. The thick, absorbent texture makes cleaning the floor easy. Toss the pads in the washing machine to reuse them.
I really like this mop, but it was a pain to set up. (The company’s YouTube channel is much clearer than the crappy written instructions.) Once assembled, the mop was great for my small apartment. It doesn’t take up much storage space, and the proprietary refills smell good. There’s a refillable reservoir and a washable mop pad, and the cleaning solution sprays via a manual trigger, making this much more sustainable than battery-operated models, like a Swiffer WetJet—though you should be prepared to squeeze it a lot when mopping larger areas.
They aren’t as durable as traditional trash bags, but they’re made of 90 percent post-consumer plastic. (The other 10 percent is renewable sugarcane.) I think the eco-friendly composition makes these a worthy trade-off.
For the Laundry Room
These pods smell fantastic, work with high-efficiency machines, get your clothes squeaky clean, and are made of plant-derived ingredients. There are no dyes, and shipping is free and carbon-neutral. I also like the brand’s wool dryer balls ($29) as an alternative to fabric softener sheets. If you don’t like pods, try Defunkify’s Free & Clear liquid laundry detergent ($23).
I tested this plant-based spray on blood, coffee, red sauce, and makeup. It removed them all. It doesn’t contain chlorine, dyes, or other common irritants typically found in other stain removers.
This baking soda booster is free of bleach, ammonia, dyes, and fragrances. It’s also septic-safe. I especially like it for linens and towels—it leaves them really fresh and banishes any lingering smells.
What Makes a Cleaning Product Sustainable?
“Eco-friendly” is an extremely vague term that can be misleading, especially when it comes to marketing. No product is perfect, but the Environmental Protection Agency has a list of some things to look out for when searching for more environmentally friendly cleaning supplies.
When it comes to product composition, the smaller, the better. A concentrated product produces fewer carbon emissions and creates less waste to ship than a heavier, more diluted version, and a powder or tablet is smaller still. The EPA Safer Choice program vets products and certifies them if they meet the agency’s standards for safer, more environmentally friendly products. Certified products feature the Safer Choice label on their packaging.
You can also take a look at the ingredients. For example, we look for products that are biodegradable and have less fragrance and other unnecessary additives.
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