The Kitchen Sponge Dilemma | Seventh Generation
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The Kitchen Sponge Dilemma

Author: the Inkslinger

Ours is a pretty enviro family whose life is painted about as green as we can get it. Yet no matter how eco we go, there will always be a roll of recycled paper towels in the cabinet over the stove. Why on sustainable Earth do we use a disposable product, you ask? Because it's the healthy thing to do.

For years, I used sponges to deal with spills and worse. They were reusable, long-lived, and took up little space. But as things turn out, when sponges clean up they're really just making more of a mess. The reason is pretty simple: To your average bacteria, a spot in a sponge is like moving into a 4-star hotel with a coupon for free room service. It's damp, dark, and delightfully warm in there, the perfect party spot for the bacteria that get sucked inside during routine cleaning.

When I was swiping counters with my trusty sponge, I wasn't  just absorbing existing problems. I was spreading new ones all over the place, according to Mother Nature Network. Because unless your sponge is brand new, it's more than likely leaving a fresh trail of all the microbes it contains behind. Given what some of those bacteria can be (yes, e. Coli, I'm looking at you), that's not really the most reliable way to keep a safe and healthy home.

With paper towels -- I prefer the 100% recycled paper towels from Seventh Generation, my kitchen isn't turning into a Petri dish. Of course, you can boil, microwave, or wash a sponge in the dishwasher to sanitize it, but it's just not practical to do that after every swipe. So now we reserve our sponge for special uses and stick to the recycled paper towels for everyday clean-up.

This is (pun alert!) counter-intuitive in many ways. But that's occasionally the way it is when it comes to taking care of your family and the planet.

photo: bark


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Effie Carson picture
Effie Carson
Since the early 80's I buy 1 or 2 rolls of paper towels a year for doggie messes. The rest of the time we use a daily dish cloth and one use rags that are popped into the laundry.
Anny 13 picture
Anny 13
I have a small container that holds bleach and water. After I use my sponge . I squeeze it out . Dip it in the bleach and water solution till the sponge is fully wet again. give another squeeze do it again and then just let it dry. I also do the same with wash clothes when I use them. I replace this solution when it starts to look dirty. this way I know I am killing germs not only on my cloth but on my surfaces . I am not afraid of bleach as so many are. It is cheap and safe way to kill germs weather they be from food or colds or flu .
forgvng picture
One of the "shopping networks" sells rolls of paper towels made from bamboo. They are strong and can be washed up to 100 times. They can be used as pads for Swiffer mops too. You have the convenience of a paper towel and the ability to wash and reuse them. I haven't put them in the try, but air dry on the shower curtain rod.
HeatherGray picture
We have paper towels, but it takes us about a year to go through one roll. We save them for the messes we don't want to deal with washing a washcloth. We store the most raggedy cloths in the kitchen for when we spill something there -- wipe it up, throw it in the wash. No problems with e. coli here!
Bill picture
Informative and delightfully well written. Carry On
Dianne Richardson picture
Dianne Richardson
Using a sponge hanger and letting it dry out between uses can help keep your sponge cleaner.
Bettie Kettell picture
Bettie Kettell
Yes, sponges are carriers of bacteria. Suggest soaking in a tea tree oil preparation, or vinegar, or a peroxide, or running through the dishwasher, or a spin in the microwave, or a combination of the above to de-germ them. I use dishcloths instead of sponges. A new one for every day or when very soiled. They too, get disinfected with vinegar, or a peroxide, or tea tree and the laundered. I feel my work areas are pretty clean. Vinegar is a great disinfectant, too, for counters and surfaces.
Craftaholichar picture
I have found that you can use newspaper for just about anything that you would use a paper towel for. It is great for cleaning windows,mirrors, and glass tables with white vinegar. I've used it to clean up pet accidents on carpet as well the wet and chunky both. Its great for putting under high chairs to catch the spills. And will even work in a pinch for kitty litter if shredded. And old t-shirts and night gowns work great for dusting rags and car rags too.
teminy picture
To paintinglady (I know, I'm very late): you can get the hand knit scrubbies on etsy. I used to buy mine from an old lady who stopped knitting them. Do a search on "scrubbies," or, if you want non-nylon, search for "sudsies."
adrea gentry picture
adrea gentry
If you throw them in your composter! I would rather do this with kitty pee than have to run a separate load of laundry for one rag. With 5 dogs, 5 cats, 3 adults and 1 infant, we get alot of stuff on the floor that qualifies for paper towel use. We use plenty of cloth rags, but we don't always have enough to run the HE washer! (which is wasteful if it isn't full!) So, we use a paper towel occasionally to mop up messes(usually of the pet variety) and into the compost it goes.(unless its poop. then it gets flushed.) I would also like to know when 7th gen will make a flushable diaper....
eyw_399 picture
HAs 7th generation addressed your mention of polyurethane in their diapers? I'd like to learn more about this and hear what they have to say.
Donna picture
I use peroxide for everything: I pour some on my sponge every day and have some in a spray bottle with a Thymes brand Mandarin/Coriander (a green cleaner that smells fabulous!) for cleaning my counters. I use paper towels sparingly. I do like kayote's idea for the alternative-cloths, thanks
yogisaves41 picture
Rags, old cloth diapers, old burp cloths, kitchen towels, face cloths...any of these are a better option than paper towels and a sponge. We haven't used paper towels or napkins for 2 years. We only use tissues if we have a cold, for the occasional nose blow we just use a cloth and throw in the laundry pile.
Greenforme picture
I use Costco's microfibre rags. They come in a large bag of about 24 (I think) and I cut them into 4 pieces which are just the right size for me. What I don't like about cotton rags is they take too long to dry therefore they can get smelly. Polyester dries in no time. I disinfect with vinegar and if I need more power, an extra spray with 3% hydrogen peroxide.
eistrach picture
Kudos to all of the people that recognize that it's just as easy and much less wasteful to just use dish cloths or rags!!!! Shame on Seventh Generation for promoting the sale of their paper towels this way! On another subject, I'm was very disappointed to now find polyurethane in the Seventh Generation diapers :( What's going on 7th Gen????
jbbrockman picture
For those of us who live in Trader-Joe's-less areas, Twist ( makes compostable loofah sponges.
Mattathias picture
Of course, it's important to remember that creating a germ-less bubble around yourself means your body never gets a chance to build any resistance. Not that I'm advocating e-coli burgers for lunch, just that going overboard in the war against germs means they might eventually win.
martica0007 picture
Increase their sales of paper towels. I bought 20 diswashing rags, and I use a new one everyday for dishes along with a kitchen towel. a roll of paper towel last me 3 to 5 months. I exchange my dish-clothes everyday (sometimes) 2 and 3 times per day. Then during the weekend i throw them all in the washing machine a long with whatever else needs wash and that's it. I buy papertowels for sinple things such as when im in a rush. But for the most part save the earth and your pocket change. Invest in rags that can totally last you 5 years. Once you go rags you will never go back, cuz you dont have to worry about breaking etc. mwah mwah
SarahT picture
I have been meaning to get my act together and knit a pile of dish rags that I can wash & reuse over and over and over again.
dickerca picture
Bleach is a known carcinogen. It's terrible for the environment. It would be better to just wash your rags in hot water. I once read a comment here from a lady who washed poopy diapers with hot water and they cleaned just fine - no bleach. I can't imagine a dish rag needs bleach. I use sponges made with recycled paper and the scrubby part made out of agave. I haven't found a rag yet that can scrub like the scrubby side of a sponge. When that happens, I will gladly change.
CCShopgirl picture
I Love seventh generation paper towels .. I do use rags , dishcloths , and sometimes sponges as well depending on what I am cleaning up .. With 7 cats .. a bunny .. birds .. kids .. etc some of the messes I never want to see again .. and never want to have to deal with washing them ( too gross) .. They just need to be cleaned and gone .. Also for greasy type spills or messes I would waste more detergent / water / and electric then the few towels .. People forget the everything uses something .. you need to wash your cleaning cloths or rags using detergent and perhaps even bleach .. maybe having to dry them .. Aside from water You also use electric if washing machine/ dryer/microwave/dishwasher .. So At these times when too yucky or greasy a mess I am very grateful for a 100 percent recycled product .. I use mainly the brown but will try the new white ones as well .. thanks
lindapost50 picture
I use those home made scrunchies too they are at nearly every craft fair in Nov and Dec usually 2.00ish a piece I usually buy 5-6 each year and also give as gifts you can also find 100% cotton dishcloths that are knitted at these shows also i love those wash and dry beautifully... I throw in dishwasher and in washing machine and use cloth towells always but we do use a sponge on dishes I throw it in the dishwasher regularly
rkathleen picture
I use rags for most kitchen cleaning (usually old clothes or dish towels); I have lots of them and just put them through the wash regularly. I do keep paper towels for cleaning around the cat litter box in my bathroom, but rags work for almost everything else!
cmdominick picture
Why not use microfiber cloths? THAT is green cleaning. I got 16 of them at Marshall's for $8! I haven't used a sponge or paper towel to clean up kitchen messes in over a month. Saves money and the environment/eco footprint. That's an $8 investment which will save me about $50 in paper towels annually (I use to use about two rolls a month @ $2 per roll). Even use them in the bathrooms and everywhere else. Seventh Generation should come out with a TRULY compostable sponge...who cares about bacteria when you can zap it in the microwave? Dump the paper's just wasteful no matter how "eco-friendly" they are.
pmernick picture
I bought a package of cloth diapers several years ago, and that's what I use in the kitchen to clean countertops, appliances, floors, etc. They work great even on granite and stainless steel. I just wash a load of them with other rags and dog towels when they pile up. Even with two kids and dogs and cats, a roll of paper towels will last over a month.
gail Perkins picture
gail Perkins
We recycle everything we can. We have a wood stove so I save my "clean" used paper towels to start fires. I just toss them in a cardboard box near the stove and they dry out before I use them. I use all cotton dish cloths and towels that I change at least once a day and launder them accordingly. I cannot imagine using a sponge because of the germs. To get tough things clean, I take steel wool pads and cut them in half before I use them. They last much longer. I use a sanitize cycle on the dishwasher. I do use a small amount of bleach to clean the sink and garbage disposal flap pretty much every day before I use the sink for anything. Food sprays upward in the disposal and it is amazing how nasty that rim and flap get! (we also compost) It may seem like a lot, but one thing I do not like is the possibility of spreading germs to food.
Emily1515 picture
Trader Joe's sells natural sponges, not treated with anti-anything. We use them, microwave them, wash them in the laundry, eventually relegate them to household cleaning, and then toss them in the compost. cheers!
paintinglady picture
I've always loved sponges (I was raised cleaning with them). However, a few years ago I bought some round, "scrubbies" from a lady who crocheted/knitted them by hand from a durable scratchy fiber. These worked so much better than most items for dishes, and I thought why can't anyone sell something like this? (I cleaned them by microwaving them.) Can't find them anymore. Anyone ever see one?
AlyGal26 picture
I use a sponge to wipe my counters. When I'm done loading the dishwasher, I spray my counters w/vinegar & water & let it sit while I get the coffee pot ready for morning. Then I wipe the counters & spray them again w/peroxide & water & let it sit while I finish putting the finishing touches on lunches. then I wipe the counters, rinse the sponge, microwave it for 2 minutes & start the diswasher. Over the weekend when I may cook more meals a day than I repeat that process, with some variation-I don't run the dishwasher, make coffee & pack lunches 2 or 3 times a day, after every meal that is prepare. I've never had a problem!
kristine picture
I buy inexpensive white wash cloths by the dozen and keep them for kitchen use..wash in hot water...
SafePetHaven picture
Vegans are not immune from e.coli contamination, in that manure/fertilizer is used for some fruit & vegetable crops and can still be a source of bacteria of all types (as well as insect eggs, etc.). Proper food handling hygiene and sanitation protocol should still be practiced no matter what your food consumption. While it's true that vinegar is a less toxic product than many commercial ones to use for many cleaning projects, it does need to be left on the surface awhile to work. Often folks use a dilute vinegar water solution [or hydrogen peroxide, or alcohol or other active ingredient disinfectant] in a plant mister bottle do what they see in tv commercials: spray surface with bottle in one hand then wipe dry immediately with (paper) towel in the other hand. I'm still not convinced that a dilute solution of vinegar spritzed on a countertop or cutting board, at room temperature, then wiped up shortly thereafter would do a thorough enough job to decontaminate e.coli from a food prep area. I'd be more convinced from a truly scientific study's data. Past tense of wring (as in squeezing a sponge) is wrung (not wringed). Sorry, but this retired science/math/computer instructor that still has nails-on-chalkboard reaction to incorrect word usage [their vs. they're, your vs. you're, etc.].
gogreengirls picture
Hi guys, I forgot to mention I stop using sponges and went back to my good ole cloths to wash dishes,clean the house, wash the car, etc.
gogreengirls picture
I always have used cloths before going green was known. Recently had switched to sponge due to learning from one of my daughters who works in a daycare. She informed me that they do not use dishwashers to clean the dishes, they hand wash the dishes. They use clorox in the dishwater and use sponges only. Owner tells me that is a state law they can not use dishwasher? Need to use clorox in the water to clean the dishes. YUCK!! Poor lil kids! Imagine drinking from a cup that has been washed in just clorox and water? (hope they rinse the cups and plates really good!). Is that normal standard for daycares to use clorox in dishwater?
AlanG picture
I can't find a good sponge for washing dishes any more. They're all treated with anti-bacterial chemicals and the smell really bothers me. Stays in them for months. Any ideas for chemical-free sponges, or how to remove that odor?
kmpelley picture
I have not used sponges in years because they are so filthy. I use cotton rags--I just keep washing the rags [old mens' t-shirts and cut up worn out bath towels work great], hanging the rags on the clothes line, and using them to clean up messes, water spashes on the stainless steel sink, etc. I also hand knit dish rags and face/dish towels which I also use instead of rags. For rags stay away from those containing any synthetics. So, be sure your husband wears all cotton t-shirts. Do not buy kitchen & bathroom towels that contain any synthetics. It is hard to find all cotton dish towels. They will call them "cotton-rich", but only the loops are cotton, not the warp & weft. Cheaper bathroom towels also tend to only have cotton loops with the underlying structure as synthetic. When the rags are too pitiful to really use, be sure to put the little pieces that you can readily tear off into your compost pile. The only time I use paper towels is when I have to clean up pet vomit or kitty messes on the floor. It takes me about 2-3 years to use a role of recycled paper towels.
smalc picture
I agree with some of the above posters, use cloths. I have never had any desire to use a sponge over a cloth. Easy to wash, easy to dry.
Donna B. picture
Donna B.
OK, here are 2 simple ways to get your sponges clean. Wet the sponge and microwave on high for 3-5 minutes. You can also put it in the diswasher, we only run the dishwasher every 3-4 days so the microwave works well when not a dishwasher day.
Halli620 picture
While you shouldn't, for example, wipe up after raw meat and then go use the same sponge on the kitchen table, your cursory statement will only serve to spread paranoia. If you follow a few general rules with sponges, you shouldn't be spreading bacteria by using them. 1) Always let sponges dry fully each day (or night). Most household bacteria can't live without moisture. 2) Boil sponges to sanitize, either weekly or bi-weekly, after using on spaces touched by raw meat, or when someone in the house is sick. Fill a small pot halfway with water, drop in the sponge, and bring to a boil, and leave it boiling for 5 minutes or more while doing other kitchen chores. When done, you can pour off some of the water, and let the sponge cool in the pot until it's safe to handle. Then squeeze and let dry fully. While I have nothing against 100% recycled paper towels, and I definitely use them too, such a vague lambast of using sponges for cleaning in general is totally unnecessary.
ednshell picture
A meat eater's kitchen is dirtier than a vegans toilet is what I've read, lol! Yuck! That being said, we also use cloth napkins and towels for the kitchen but we do have 7gen. paper towels for occasional doggie accidents or similar things I don't want in my wash. I thought this article was going to be about kitchen sponges, we use them but it's probably the most wasteful product we buy. My grandmother used just a wash cloth to do her dishes. We have tried this and keep going back to the sponge, I would love a nice alternative. A scrubbie version. You've got me thinking about this dilemma again.
kristyn picture
We do use a sponge for certain clean ups, but it always gets washed or sprayed down with vinegar after each use. We, too, have a slew of towels and washcloths we keep in a kitchen drawer for clean-ups and to use as napkins. You can purchase them in big packages from most retailers. Clean, worn out clothing is also recycled into rags at our home- just cut to size! We try our best to stay clean and healthy AND away from disposables!
lana picture
I also have a basket of dishrags - white terry for messy messes, AND colored terry washcloths for mealtime napkins (bought at a discount drugstore in multipacks - great price). A separate, smaller hamper (foot powered trash can) is in the kitchen for the used rags. Dirties are left to dry on top, then tossed in the hamper to clean later. The white ones get bleach/not water, the colored ones; oxygen bleach/hot water. Sponge gets wringed out, and soaked in bleach water after every use. You *could* microwave the sponge everyday, too - I heard that is a good germ killer. I haven't bought paper towels in a least 3 years. Paper, while recycled, still makes a bigger footprint than reusing cloth rags.
hedda picture
I use washable rags in my kitchen as well as a sponge that I run through the dishwasher whenever I do the dishes.
kayote picture
I have a basket of dishrags & similar sized cloths sitting at the end of my kitchen. I pull one out whenever I need to wipe up a spill then toss it in a laundry basket sitting in the corner for that purpose. When it runs low, I wash them (one of the few loads I do in hot water). No reuse of dirty wipes/sponges and no paper towels either. It's worked really well!