EarthTalk / E-The Environmental Magazine
Dear EarthTalk: I want to use cleaning products that are healthier for the environment, but I worry that baking soda and the like won't really get my tub and toilet germ-free. Should I continue using bleach products in the bathroom? -- Margaret Pierce, Columbia, Mo.
When it comes to household cleaning products, most mainstream brands make use of chlorine bleach, ammonia or any number of other chemicals that can wreak havoc on the environment and human health.
Ammonia is a volatile organic compound that can irritate the respiratory system and mucous membranes if inhaled, and can cause chemical burns if spilled on the skin. Bleach contains sodium hypochlorite, which can cause eczema and other skin ailments as well as breathing difficulties if inhaled. And when it reacts with other elements in the environment, toxic "organochlorines" can form, damaging the ozone layer and causing health issues such as immune suppression, reproductive difficulties and even cancer.
Fortunately, growing public concern about the health effects of toxic exposure have led to an "explosion of environmentally friendlier and non-toxic products," according to the health information website, WebMD. "There are many products in this category -- from laundry detergents and fabric softeners to multi-surface and floor cleaners, to tile and bathroom cleaners -- that are ... safer for people and the planet."
WebMD warns that while many are indeed safer, others are "greenwashed," meaning they are "marketed as natural while still including suspect chemicals." How does one know? "Get in the simple practice of looking at product labels to see if the cleaning manufacturer is clearly disclosing all ingredients," reported WebMD. "If it is not ... it could mean the manufacturer is trying to hide a particular suspect ingredient."
Also, just because a product has an eco-certification printed on its label doesn't necessarily mean it should be trusted. To make sure, check the Eco-Labels section of Consumer Reports' Greener Choices website, which gives the low-down on what labels really mean and whether they are backed up by government regulations. Another good resource is the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Household Products Database, which provides ingredient lists for thousands of products on U.S. store shelves.
If you want to play it safe and natural when cleaning your home, WebMD suggests using white distilled vinegar -- it kills mold and mildew, eliminates soap scum and sanitizes, all in one fell swoop -- to clean windows, tile, cutting boards and countertops. Another effective yet gentle natural cleaner for countertops and bathtubs is baking soda, especially when mixed with a few drops of mild soap. Borax can be called in for tougher stains. If you're interested in cleaning greener, there are many sources of natural cleaning recipes online. Or check out the cleaning products aisle at your local natural food store, where you will find a wide range of cleaning formulations from the likes of Seventh Generation, Ecover, Green Works and Earth Friendly Products (which sells a "Safeguard Your Home" retail pack that includes one each of a window cleaner, an all-purpose cleaner, a dishwashing liquid, an automatic dishwasher gel, a laundry detergent and a fabric refresher), among many others.
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Contacts: WebMD, www.webmd.com; Greener Choices, www.greenerchoices.org/eco-labels/eco-home.cfm?redirect=1; Household Products Database, hpd.nlm.nih.gov.
Dear EarthTalk: What is the environmental impact of so many people now using sites like Facebook and spending so much time online? -- Bob Yearling, Paris, Texas
The environmental impact of so much online time really boils down to energy usage, which in turn affects the amount of greenhouse gases we pump into our atmosphere. For one, each of us can help by limiting computer time (whether surfing the net or not) and shutting them down or putting them into sleep mode when we aren't using them (this can be automated via the computer's power management control panel).
Also, when shopping for a new computer, consumers and businesses alike can opt for models certified by the federal government as energy efficient with the Energy Star label. If all computers sold in the U.S. met Energy Star requirements, Americans could pocket $1.8 billion annually in saved energy costs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an amount equivalent to taking some 2 million cars off the road.
Individual responsibility aside, the creation and management of more efficient data centers by the major online hubs -- especially as we enter the age of "cloud" computing, whereby most of the software, content and services we look to our computers for resides online and is served to us as-needed -- is what can have the biggest impact. Google, Facebook and Amazon.com are already deeply committed to the cloud computing model, with Microsoft, Yahoo and others following suit accordingly.
For its part, Google has been a real leader in the building of green data centers, even powering them with renewable energy. The company recently released environmental footprint scores for several of its data centers. While the energy usage required to run its cloud services (Google Search, Google+, Gmail and YouTube) seems huge in the aggregate -- it used 260 megawatt hours to power its data centers in 2010 -- it boils down to only 7.4 kilowatt hours worth of energy annually per user. Google reports that to provide an individual user with its services for a month uses less energy than leaving a light bulb on for three hours. And because the company has been carbon neutral since 2007, "even that small amount of energy is offset completely, so the carbon footprint of your life on Google is zero."
In an April 2011 report titled "How Dirty is your Data?" the non-profit Greenpeace examined energy sources for the 10 largest IT companies involved in cloud computing, finding Apple, Facebook and IBM especially guilty of getting significant amounts of power from coal-fired power plants. Facebook came under fire this year when reporters uncovered that the company planned to buy electricity for its brand new eco-friendly data center in Prineville, Ore., -- one of the greenest such facilities ever designed and constructed -- from a utility that derives most of its power from coal. Yahoo, Amazon.com and Microsoft scored best in use of renewable alternative energy sources for cloud services.
In the long run, analysts think that the widespread shift to cloud computing will be a great boon to the environment. A report released in September 2011 by Pike Research, "Cloud Computing Energy Efficiency," predicts that because of the shift to cloud computing and increasing efficiencies, data center power consumption will decrease by 31 percent between 2010 and 2020.
EarthTalk is by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: firstname.lastname@example.org.