Saturday, January 31, 2009

Cleaning and Greening My Home!

Years ago when I decided to remove the dangerous chemicals from my home, the first to go were the cleaning products. I opened the cabinet beneath the sink and removed every product with a warning label. I stood amazed at the words on the products' labels: Danger, Do Not Mix with Other Products, avoid contact with skin, do not breathe fumes. These were common household cleaners we have all used for years! As I removed the products, I came across a cleaner for my glass top stove and decided to clean it one last time before getting rid of the product. Within minutes, my nose was dripping; I was sneezing and had watery eyes. This confirmed my decision to rid my home of the chemicals once and for all.
After I collected the containers (some were half full--or half empty, depending on how you see the glass), I was at a loss of how to dispose of my collection. I called my local sanitation department and was informed that I should put them in the trash for collection day. Not too thrilled with that answer, I called the neighboring county's sanitation department and was given the same response. Hmmmm. So, my next call was to the waste management service. Same answer, "Just dump the stuff in the trash can!" When all else fails, go to Google. I searched how to dispose of half empty (or full J) household cleaners. One result stated that I should give them to a "friend." Perhaps that was a typo and they meant "enemy" instead? Another result said to use them up. Another sneezing fit? No, thank you! The next suggested I pour them down the drain. Doesn't that defeat the purpose in the first place? Yet one more result offered this bit of advice, "Cleaning products do not typically contain ingredients that would harm the environment in the quantities that are disposed of by households. The vast majority of cleaning products are water soluble and biodegradable and are formulated for safe disposal in either municipal or home wastewater treatment systems." Nope. That still didn't seem quite right. My eco-green conscience needed a better answer. After all, I had more than two garbage bags full of products, which, by the way, included shampoos, lotions, aerosol hair spray, and other products containing sodium lauryl sulfate, parabens and phatalates (just to name a few). Next up, I went to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for answers. From there, I was directed to where you can enter the product you want to recycle and your zip code to find a nearby collection center. To my dismay, there was no such place in my area. The EPA instructed me to double-bag the containers and place them in the trash.
Throughout my research, I came across some interested tidbits. According to the EPA, the air inside our homes is, on average, two to five times more polluted than the air outside--largely due to the household cleaners! The Clean Water Fund states that the average American uses 40 pounds of dangerous chemicals in cleaning products by throwing away 12 percent of their leftovers in landfills and pouring a total of 32 million pounds down the drain. In 1989, the EPA found the toxic chemicals in household cleaners to be three times more likely to cause cancer than other air pollutants. Since World War II, 80,000 chemicals have been developed to optimize our pesticides, cleaners, plastics, personal care products and industrial products. Many common cleaners contain neurotoxins, depress the nervous system and threaten the healthy function of the liver and kidneys. When hazardous cleaning products are disposed of in landfills, the chemicals they contain can seep into the groundwater. Cleaning chemicals that find their way down our drains can also end up in our water system, while others drift from the air of our homes into the air outside. Chemical toxins are highly present in antibacterial cleaners, air fresheners, dishwasher detergents, oven cleaners, carpet and upholstery shampoo, and toilet, tub and tile cleaners. Whew! This is distressing! Thank goodness I have been "green" for a good part of my 56 years!
I talked to a friend who is an environmentally friendly chemical engineer (an oxymoron?). He has worked with a few municipal waste treatment and disposal companies and made the following comments and suggestions: Most hazardous (toxic or dangerous) chemicals these days are incinerated by special types of incinerators, but that method is not practical for the small quantities of cleaners I was (so desperately) trying to dispose. He commented that if these chemicals were placed in a landfill, they could possibly seep into the groundwater system since most landfills "close" at the end of each day with fresh dirt by using a bulldozer that can crush any cans, bottles or plastic containers holding the cleaners. This can result in the chemicals leaking past the double-bagged container. Therefore, the only viable option is to empty the cleaners into the drain and home sewer system. This method will contain the chemicals in a system designed to handle wastes (the sewer system and municipal waste treatment plant). Most waste treatment plants are designed to handle a fair amount of chemicals by using special bacteria that consume the chemicals--making sludge and methane gas (a process called anaerobic digestion). The sludge is then processed further, making it safe to landfill and/or for land applications (plant nutrient source). The methane gas is either collected or used as a heating source or "flared," converting it to CO2 and water vapor.
So, what did I do with my double-bagged chemically laden household cleaners? Well, I poured them down the drain, deposited the empty containers in the recycle bin and gave them to the sanitation man--bless his heart. (As a southerner, we always end a sentence with "bless his/her heart," especially if we've done something not so nice.) I guess my only saving grace is knowing that I have not purchased those chemical cleaners in a long time and certainly haven't used them in what seems like forever!
Carolyn Deal

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