Sponging Up a Kitchen Hot Spot | Seventh Generation
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Sponging Up a Kitchen Hot Spot

Author: the Inkslinger

Kitchen SpongeI have two pet peeves: people who park like they've got the only car in the lot and slimy smelly kitchen sponges. There's not much I can do about the first one, but sponges in my kitchen I can control. And that's good because sponges, believe it or not, can actually create a toxic household hot spot if we're not careful.

The problem is that sponges are an ideal environment for bacteria encountered during cleaning. Wipe up a few germs, and they're going to think they landed in a microscopic country club with an all-you-can-eat food particle buffet, endless nooks and crannies to hang out in, and a fantastic weather forecast calling for warmth with a 100% chance of damp.

That's why whenever people study household sponges (and yes, people actually do), they find all kinds of yucky stuff hiding inside many of them. A 1994 University of Arizona study, for example, found that about 80% of tested kitchen sponges contained some combination of up to 15 different kinds of dangerous bacteria including E. coli and salmonella. That's enough to make me chuck the sponge completely and reach for the paper towels, but we all know that reusable trumps disposable, which makes these three simple rules for non-toxic sponging a better, healthier bet:

  • Rule #1: Choose your sponges carefully. Many are made from polyester, polyurethane, and/or other non-renewable, non-biodegradable petroleum-based materials. They're also increasingly treated with conventional antibacterial chemicals. A better option are sponges made from renewable, biodegradable cellulose, which will last longer, absorb more, and work harder. You can find untreated, natural cellulose sponges at almost any natural food store.
  • Rule #2: Practice safe sponging. I keep two different sponges, and never the twain shall meet: One is exclusively for counters and the other is only used on dishes. I clip a corner of the counter sponge to distinguish it. I also don't use my kitchen sponge to clean up after meat preparation, on the floor, or anywhere else I think bacteria might lurk. Meat zones and other suspect areas get treated with Seventh Generation's new disinfecting cleaner and recycled paper towels. Messes on the floor get another paper towel or two.
  • Rule #3: A sponge can't clean unless it is too. According to a 2008 United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) study, which looked at everything from soaking sponges in lemon juice to treating them with chlorine, only three techniques effectively sanitize sponges: Wash them in the dishwasher or microwave them on high for 60 seconds. The third choice is to boil them, but that's not very energy efficient. These tactics should kill 99.99 of any bacteria present. Everything else, according to the USDA, is snake oil. Between sanitizings, keep your sponges high and dry. Wring them out after each use, and store them in a dry place. I found a cool little wire basket at the hardware store that suction-cups to the side of the sink and lets air circulate around my sponges so they dry faster.

Follow these rules of safe sponging, and that's one more common toxic hot spot you won't have in your own home. Because really...who wants to make a new mess while cleaning up an old one?

photo: blmurch


mulberryann picture
Long ago, I had decided to do away with sponges(any form. Since our water is so awful, the smell of the sponge combined with the water was worse than awful! I usually take old towels or wash cloths, cut them up & use those for my dishes, cleaning the sinks. I use separate ones for the floor. These can be tossed into the washing machine at any time. For pots & pans, I still use old-fashioned steel wool. Thanks for your information always. Sincerely, Mulberryann
LibbyMN picture
I can appreciate the use of a microwave for sanitizing a sponge, but I don't own a microwave anymore because of how badly they affect the food. I put the sponges in the dishwasher occasionally, but also use MMS (sodium hypochlorite) to kill any pathogens. It is totally safe and breaks down into simple salt within 2 hours.I never have a bad odor problem from a sponge or rag since starting to use it.
kate picture
We use a stainless-steel dish scrubber (it's actually a miniature piece of chain mail made with surgical-grade stainless) or a dish brush with replaceable heads, and then rags for everything else. The stainless scrubber can be run through the dishwasher when necessary. With kids, we do laundry almost every day anyway, so we might as well toss in our kitchen towels with the regular laundry. Of course, bare hands are an excellent scrubber as well, and a great way to make sure your dishes are truly getting clean, since you can feel any debris that might be left behind. Sponges are just gross!
rachelr picture
I use the sponge for dishwashing only, and microwave it about halfway through the week (for 2 min instead of 1 min now, I guess!), then toss it out after about a week. I use a dishcloth for wiping down counters, tables, etc. and change it every day, since they could be wiping up juice from meat or who knows what. Definitely don't forget to wet that sponge before microwaving it; I allow it to sit in there for a minute or so afterward (or until I remember it), which allows for easy weekly cleanup of the microwave. Now if only more workplaces did this! That's where the really nasty sponges reside!
deadlycurlz05 picture
Just wanted to let everyone know you have to microwave the sponge for TWO MINUTES not sixty seconds. The University of Florida (go Gators!) did a study on microwaving sponges back in 2007. From the study: The results were unambiguous: Two minutes of microwaving on full power mode killed or inactivated more than 99 percent of all the living pathogens in the sponges and pads, although the Bacillus cereus spores required four minutes for total inactivation. news.ufl.edu/2007/01/22/zap-the-bugs/ BUT please remember to put a WET sponge in the microwave, not a dry one. You don't want to burn the house down! BTW, microwaving your sponge also makes cleaning the microwave a breeze. The moisture softens all the dry food particles so you don't have to scrub the junk out.
destiney1 picture
i have a sponge for the counters thjat i throw in the silverwere bin in my dishwasher every day but i also use dishrags n just toss them in the washer with going on 4 kids i wash at least 1 load of laundry a day lol.
tlaterza picture
I've always thrown my sponges in the washer & dryer and assumed this sanitized them. Does it? Is a wet/moldy dish rag sanitized if it goes in the washer/dryer?
rox731 picture
I only use sponges to clean house with and throw them away. I use dish rags and change them every other day. They are a breeding ground also for all those nasty things.
lisamm141 picture
Thanks for the great info on sponges! I always felt it was gross when I would see people wash their counters and then wash their dishes. Now I have 'proof' behind my ickiness! :) Thanks!! Lisa Arnold www.LisaMArnold.com
grahamcharles picture
Dishcloths and a decent rag bag are a much better way to go -- reusable (plus often made from old clothes), recyclable (cotton cloths can be tossed in with paper in most places), biodegradable, and you can launder them daily. Sponges are a triumph of marketing over usefulness.
cmyers08 picture
Thank you for the update on sponges. I have been microwaving my sponges for several years now. I always rinse my dishes and sponges with white vinegar.