Our Obsession to Clean is Making Us Trashy


Many people that consider themselves good stewards of their money are careful not to indulge in too many designer shoes, coffee house drinks, or take-out dinners. How often have you considered that your cleaning routine may be the most wasteful habit of them all? 

An article by the Chicago Tribune gives facts that are shocking:

"If someone were to load all of the disposable wipes purchased by consumers in North America last year onto 18-wheel semis, the caravan would number 9,000 trucks and stretch for 68 miles. And it would be carrying 83,000 tons of these seemingly ephemeral cloths, which are anything but fleeting."

The article goes on to mention that 30% of these disposable wipes are used for home cleaning: dusting, mopping, window-washing, and counter-wiping. The popularity of these handy new cleaning options have turned them into a $800 million dollar a year industry. So why is it that we continue to buy these wasteful products? 

Germ Warfare – Many of the new “clean n’ toss” products on the market were developed out of a fear of touching dirt. While it was simple for my mother to use the same pair of rubber cleaning gloves all day long, our current culture seems to think that anything that will become dirty must be thrown away! I realize that my toilet bowl scrubber touches my nasty toilet, and therefore, must be stored somewhere safe where the kids won’t use it for a weapon. Does this really mean that I am somehow inferior or “filthy” because I refuse to succumb to the world of using a disposable toilet scrubber on the end of a plastic stick every time I clean?

The Money Machine – Many cleaning product companies wouldn’t be in businesses if everyone followed the old cleaning methods of my grandmother’s generation. A dab of baking soda, a little vinegar, and some good old elbow grease are a whole lot cheaper than the aisles and aisles of cleaning gadgets being sold in today’s retail stores. While it is tempting to submit to the instant-gratification of the fresh-smelling, disposable wipe or the single-use dusting cloth, it’s not extra time that I am buying with my extra $3. I’m buying excessive packaging, expensive ad-campaigns, and a whole lot of landfill space.

The Fun Factor – It may not be as sexy to scrub a spot with my wet washrag. I may not feel as accomplished or “with-it” when I use hot water and vinegar to scrub my floors. While shopping for the next best cleaning gadget may be fun, using it seldom makes any difference in the excitement of my cleaning routine. My trash becomes fuller, however, and my wallet a little lighter.

What does this mean for you? Take a moment to consider your ideals. If being wasteful is not one of them, maybe it is time to return to a simpler way of cleaning. While the cleaning industry continues to entice us with flushable wipes, we seldom consider the full consequence of this new trend. Cleaner is not always cleaner.

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Nora Dunn's picture

After spending two months living completely off the grid on an ecologically sustainable property, I became aware of just how much waste we create in the name of cleanliness.

So I applaud your article - only in this part of the world do we have such disposable and wasteful ways of  being clean. Ultimately I don't believe it is healthy - for our bodies or the environment. For dozens - even hundreds - of years we did it the simple way and nobody keeled over because of it. If we all thought a little more about exactly what our individual impact on the environment is, we might not buy the one-use anything again, despite its convenience. 

Guest's picture

I moved into my home 19 years ago and the Original roll of Paper Towels I bought is still under the sink unopened.

I still use the two dozen Terry Cloth Bar Towels my mother gave me before I moved in to clean up spills and anything else. Dingy and Threadbare but they still work...though I did buy another two dozen at Sam's for $9 last year.

I also don't use Paper Napkins or Paper Plates...cloth and China for me.

And the Frugal End..

The "average" family uses 2 rolls a week..lets just use 75 cents a roll average over this time period..

Its probably more than 75 cents a roll or package but it makes for easy numbers....

52 weeks times 2 rolls = 104 times 75 cents = $78.00 times 19 years = $1482.00

Assume the same price for 1 pack of Napkins and 1 pack of Paper Plates per week equals another $1482.00.

$2964.00 would have gone out in the Garbage...factor in even a modest interest rate on the money and you could double or triple the amount from putting it in savings. Somewhere between $6000 and $9000 saved.

What have I ended up spending????

$9 on Bar Towels
$20 on Cloth Napkins
$100 back then on decent China

Laundry..not even a full load for them...say 25 cents for water, soap and the dryer...

52 weeks times 25 cents = $13 times 19 years = $247

So 9 + 20 + 100 + 247 = $376.00

Not bad and Eco Friendly too!!!!

~ Roland

Guest's picture

I to try not to use paper towels (still working on the paper napkin issue). I cycle down my white bath towels once they get frayed around the edges and start looking tacky. I cut the towel into 6 squares and then zig zag stitch around the boarder so they don't left fuzzy bits in the washer. They last forever and I have given some to my son when he bought his condo, so the tradition continues.

Myscha Theriault's picture

We don't use paper napkins either, and I'm not into disposable wipes in a huge way. While we've virtually given up paper towels, we do keep one roll under wraps for dealing with grease for the occasional deep fried item, or if one of the dogs is sick and things are just too disgusting to think about cleaning off a towel I have to re-use. I say under wraps because now that we don't use them often, it's shocking to see how many of them people waste if they come to visit. It's not about being cheap, it's just that I cringe if there's a little drop of water on the counter and someone unrolls 4 or 5 towels with abandon to deal with it. Sort of like a toddler exploring a roll of toilet paper for the first time. I don't mean to sound judgemental. But seriously, take a look at the consumption rate the next time you visit someone who uses them. I'm far from being an eco-goddess, but geeze . . .

See, this is what happens when I tackle an issue before I have coffee. I get on a soap box. At any rate, great piece. I'm interested to see how the discussion unfolds.


Guest's picture

Thank you for this post! We are so germ-phobic these days that we are disinfecting ourselves straight into warfare with super bacteria as we weaken our own immune systems and kill off the weaker or friendly bacteria with all this "cleaning." AND what a useless waste of resources.

I get so happy when Wise Bread posts combine frugality with ecology. Isn't this the definition of sustainability? If it's not, it should be.

Thursday Bram's picture

I'm afraid I'm guilty of this offense, at least to the extent of using kitchen wipes. For most things I rely on cloth towels, etc., but the thought of using them for the counters where I handle raw chicken and other food items gives me the heebie-jeebies.

Linsey Knerl's picture

Don't feel bad.  I received some wipes for a gift and fell in love with them!  It was only after I had to replace them that I got anxious.  They were almost $3.00 for 40 wipes!  (More expensive than my diapers!)

I'm with you on the chicken juice -- it needs to be taken seriously. While I don't go crazy with the bleach, a very weak dilution on a reusable rag has worked well.  I also bust out the Lysol if needed.  I find that it actually works better than the flimsy wipe, and I can rinse and reuse easily.  If using a real cloth makes you nervous, you can assign certain colored washrags to certain tasks and wash them separately.

There are also lots of great natural disenfectants that contain everything from vinegar to tea tree oil, and they work fairly well, I hear.

(But I won't think less of you if you can't part with them completely!) 

Guest's picture


Don't worry about using regular towels for dealing with bacteria-laden tasks like the ones you mention (handling raw chicken, etc.) I've done it for years, with no consequences whatsoever. If you're careful--and mindful--you'll have no trouble. For meat in particular, I try to limit its contact to one particular surface (countertop, specific cutting board) and then I let nothing else--including utensils, other food items, etc.--come into contact with that same surface. Once I've done that, I use a specific towel for cleanup of THAT area and nothing else, using lemon juice and/or vinegar first and then dishsoap. It also helps to clean up immediately after the meat handling tasks so that there's no accidental contact.

Linsey Knerl's picture

As a mother who has fallen for the disposable gimmick in the past, my original intent to abandoning the paper towels and disposable cloths were to save money -- we just couldn't choose easy clean-up over food or clothing.

Now that I've had to improvise, it has become so apparent how much less we waste.  We use the same old cleaning rag for food grease (and wash it in a special load.)  I'm slowly weaning off baby wipes (potty training early has helped immensely.)  And while I admittedly haven't broken away from disposable diapers, we have  incorporated the biodegradable diaper inserts (that can be composted) in the past.  I'm trying to focus on a few areas of improvement and build up to complete independence.   (It helps when your dryer is functioning -- right now we're hanging all our reusable cloth wipes in the basement near the wood stove with the rest of our laundry.)

I really think that even if you don't consider yourself "environmentally-conscious" in most of your daily life, this is one area that we all could improve upon, with little sacrifice.  If you can't do it for your planet, do it for your wallet!  

(And I totally agree that if paper towels are made available they WILL be used up at a ridiculous rate.  Just ask my 4-year-old!) 

Guest's picture

You forgot to mention the abomination of waste that is the swiffer!
I can't imagine throwing all of those sheets away and buying again and again expensive boxes of wipes. We bought a microfiber dust mop at Target that has a removable head that goes in the wash. We also found a big pack of large sized microfiber dusting cloths in the auto section of Target for $7. Between these two and an electrostatic duster I see no point in products like swiffer other than to waste money and fill up your trash.

We have been trying to cut down on paper towel consumption. I only use them to clean if it is really greasy or really gross (like the dog messes) or to clean the outside of the toilet. Cutting down to these limited uses has cut our paper towel consumption to less than half of what we were using. I have thought about using cloth napkins rather than letting people grab a paper towel at the table but I have a hard enough time getting bar towels properly clean. If there is a tried and true way to get them completely clean so they don't have food stains I think I would finally break down and buy them.

Guest's picture

I feel this is a good time to mention a book I've seen that will help with this very problem - Clean: The Humble Art of Zen-Cleansing by Michael De Jong. I've only flipped through it, but it seems to be a rather exhaustive recipe book for cleaning your home using only five products: Baking Soda, Borax, Lemon, Salt and White Vinegar. It could be a good step towards this goal of reducing 'clean waste!'

Guest's picture

A great way to provide the Fun Factor for reusable cleaning supplies is to knit your washcloths, dishcloths, rags, etc., using bright-colored yarns and fun patterns. You can get a ball of cotton at a craft store for $1.27 that will make two decent-sized rags or one large one, and there are free patterns all over the web. When they get dirty, they can go in the wash like any other cotton cloth, and they hold up really well. =)

Guest's picture

Sorry, the chicken juice issue doesn't work for me. What did we do before we had paper towels and disposable wipes? Cleaned it up with anything handy! I just do a 'rag' wash - if the cleaning rags are particularly icky - say, I had a massive chicken juice spill :-) - I use hot water, detergent, and maybe Oxiclean (I avoid bleach, if I can). Hot water and soap go a long way for most things. :-)

Myscha Theriault's picture

Don't worry, I won't report anyone for being an eco-sinner.  But just my two cents to several conversational points.

I too got sick of the waste of the Swiffer. But I love how compact it is and how I can get under so many areas. I found at he 99 Cents Only store in Tucson that I could get a whole pack of the microfiber Swiffer-style cloths for you guessed it, 99 cents. I just wash them out with the rest of my cleaning cloths.

The chicken goop thing. You know Thursday, chicken juice creeps me out too. I use a system similar to what Linsey was suggesting and make sure that once I wipe up chicken juice with something, it goes in the wash to be sanitized.

Cloth napkins - well, probably now is not the time to ask me since everything I have is in storage and we are sharing a face cloth at the counter every night instead, but I found the food stain thing to be annoying before our stuff was shipped too. If I am using fancy light colored ones, I try not to serve anything that would leave an obnoxious stain. While I previously just dealt with the stains on my thrift store purchased ones for a dime a piece, I'm planning on just going with darker colored bandanas when we get more settled. For every day use that is. When I did the bandana post, I noticed how cheap they were by the case. So I'm looking forward to trying it.

I do keep generic baby wipes in our bathroom because until we build the new house there's no bidet or hose in this cottage. We both like having access to one or the other, and it does promote less paper usage. Probably TMI, but I thought I'd chime in.

Oh and P.S. to Linsey . . . I am SOOOOOO with you on wanting a functioning dryer back in my life. Good grief what a pain. I don't mind hanging certain things out as a rule, but some stuff is way easier when you have a dryer. And of course, since we live on a lake, it is often damper which really complicates the solar and stove drying experience.

Guest's picture
Debbie M

"For dozens - even hundreds - of years we did it the simple way and nobody keeled over because of it." Actually, the biggest health improvement over the last couple of centuries is due to cleaning. Clean water, people washing their hands, and health providers washing their hands and instruments have made a big difference. But of course this can be done with ordinary soap, baking soda, vinegar, etc.

As for chicken, I don't put it the counters: I put it on cutting boards and whatever other dishes I'm using to process the chicken (bowls with egg or bread crumbs, pans, etc.). These can all go in the dishwasher.

Guest's picture

Those sponges that are yellow with a green, scraggly side for scrubbing? I use those instead of cloth wipes. I don't have a washer / dryer in my place, so laundry doesn't get done often enough for me to feel comfortable using cloths, even with Lysol.

the sponges, on the other hand, can be used over and over again. And when they get bacteria built-up in them (evidenced by that awful smell they give off), get them wet and soapy, and nuke them in the microwave for 30 seconds. It kills something like 99% of the bacteria in them.

Granted, I don't know how biodegradable(?) they are, but for only having to buy them on occasion, they sure are a frugal option for me.

Guest's picture

I was given a swiffer wet jet and used it on my floors. A strong chemical smell wafted up to me. I looked at the carton to figure out how I was to rinse the chemicals...and you're supposed to leave that toxic stew laying all over your floors! I have dogs and kids who are often on the floor and to me that isn't acceptable. Same with the Clorox coutner wipes. I'd rather ingest a little chicken juice than have my counters covered in a thin layer of chemicals.

I use mostly Dr. Bronners soaps and dishrags to do all my floors and counters these days.

Guest's picture

I've heard that a good way to wean yourself (and other family members) off of the paper goods is to put the paper towels and napkins inside a cupboard and put an attractive basket or box of cloth napkins and towels out where everyone can see them.
In my kitchen, the kids can reach the drawers full of washcloths and towels, but have to pull a chair over to get a paper towel. Guess what they use? Use your own laziness to advantage!
I'll admit I used some cleaning wipes in the bathroom while the kids were little because I thought it was safer, but now that I'm sure they won't squirt the cleaner in their own or each other's faces I'm switching back to squirt bottles and cloth rags.

Guest's picture

2 Clean 2 B Green

Guest's picture

I buy the disposable wipes ever great once in a while, sometimes "borrowing" a pack from the parents when we visit. We also use generic baby wipes for.. well the baby. The convenience is a big plus! Having said that of course, we should don't solely use any of the disposable products because they're ridiculously expensive...it takes us probably about 2 months to go through one roll of paper towels. I can totally see all the goodness of going even more green and using towels, napkins and rags all the time especially IF you own your own washer. But what about the poor apartment renters, like us, who have to fork over $1.25 to wash ONE load of laundry (which never even really gets clean because of the horrible machines) and would also have to store the dirty reusables until said laundry day? Anyone have any suggestions that wouldn't make me a slave to hand washing everything (because with an infant, who has extra time?)?

Guest's picture

I was also gifted a Swifter and I like it. When I ran out of the pads, I dipped into my rag box. I fasten the rag on the Swifter with a couple of rubber bands. I never was good with a mop, so this works well for me.

Guest's picture

Great post. This article reminds me about a time when I went on a picnic with my family and my Mom and Aunt were reminiscing about how on road trips my Grandmother had an old peanut butter jar filled with soapy water and a washrag to clean their sticky hands and faces. My Grandmother was so ecco-friendly and she didn't even realize it!

Guest's picture

It's a toilet bowl, not a salad bowl - is it really necessary for it to be surgically germ-free? The germophobia in the U.S. is getting out of hand.

Guest's picture

Hi everyone, I have enjoyed reading your tips, and methods of cleaning. I, too do not use the baby wipes. You can however save those wipes we get from KFC, and use them. Thats what I do.
I also, use my brown paper bags from the grocery, and drain any fried foods on them, & sometimes, I use torn phone books underneath, the brown top paper. Free & its recycling, it all goes in the trash anyway, right ? We also use newspaper for wrapping paper (If its good enough for Rachel Ashwell, its good enough for me ! ) and junk mail to start the fire, in the fireplace.
What is with this generation ? Has no one ever heard of a cloth rag? Growing up poor as I did, thats all we had was "RAGS" .
And now, I cannot feel comfortable, cleaning without using them !
Sponges are ok, but don't feel the same, or give your hand the same control, as with a rag. Rags, wash in the laundry & bleach better in my opinion, than any sponges.
We only used paper napkins, maybe at holidays, if then.
Now, I find it the BEST, ever to clean with (RAGS) ! Nothing, I mean nothing beats good old soap and water, and an old rag !!!
Cut up T-Shirt material is the best, too. No lint, left behind.
I get a small pail, with 3-4 drops of dish soap, shampoo, or baby shampoo, whatever is handy, or even Murphys oil soap, and my old wash cloth, and wipe and swipe away.
It only takes a few drops. I even rinse out our shampoo bottles, and body wash bottles, keep another empty bottle filled with those rinses, wallah ! Cleaning liquid.
I showed my kids growing up, what was on the furniture, when they were small. DRY dusting, never ! I always used the soap & water to dust, THEN, went over the wood furniture, with Pledge, or furniture polish, AFTER, I dusted with a damp cloth.
Otherwise, you're just pushing the dust around, and its still in the air, or somewhare in that room, insted of in the water.
Then, they saw all the dirt and filth in the bottom of the pail.
You know our parents, did not have all these conveniences, that we have now. But they were more practical, and smart.
And as for those stupid swiffer things, forget it !
Make those large chemical companies rich ? Forget it ! I need my money more than they do. We need to listen to our parents, and take the smart, easy, way out. Use baking soda, vinegar, and
old cleaning rags, and save our money. Old tooth brushes are great too, to use in tight spots around sink handles, shower & glass door tracks, even around the toilets , (keep them separate, or throw away after use.)
I cannot stand to use a sponge mop ! They are the worst yet !
Who invented those stupid, contraptions ! They are so worthless ! You cannot beat an old fashioned mop, either, not even with a swiffer ! No one wants to get their hands dirty anymore, whats up with that ? Part of being a housewife and a mother. HEY, thats what soap & water is for, to wash our hands ! And thus we come full circle.
Don't forget, the old vaseline, too. its good for so many things. My mom, swore by it. Be careful though, I have looked at some from several dollar stores, alot of it is made in India, & China (so be careful, you don't know whats in it.)
Make sure you read the label, and find some made in USA.
Also, I use Johnsons baby, lotion & cream on my face & hands, it works great. $3.00, is alot better that using a $ 15.00 face/night cream ! Who needs oil of olay, they have gone out of this universe, too, with all these expensive products?
What happened to simple, oil of olay face lotion ?
I had a incident happen to me when I was a teenager, in the 70's, working at a donut shop, some nit-wit, who just started (not me) mixed bleach & ammonia together, and just about put me in the hospital ! So, ever since, I cannot clean with bleach.
I do use it for the laundry, whites, and towels, but I cannot stand to clean with it. So, I started using Lysol, spray foam, tub & tile cleaner, in the kitchen & bathrooms.
I know its strong chemicals, but it works so well, you do not need much, and it kills staph, ecoli, and strep bacteria, just like bleach.
But please wear gloves, or it will strip your hands, and you will get dermatitis like I did. BUT, its the best when it comes to cleaning sinks, cutting boards, and kitchen counters.
I use bowls, to put the washed meat/chicken in, and wash accordingly. And I usually clean my entire kitchen counters,
about every 2 weeks, cleaning them all off, and spraying with the foam cleaner, them rinsing with soap & water. Then clean daily with the soap & water. So, far, it works perfect for our family. Also, do not forget to use BonAmi, its a great cleanser too. ok, I'll shut-up now. Happy Old-Fashioned Cleaning !!!!!!!