A Cleaner Clean

Back during more innocent (read: ignorant) times, when ring-around-the-collar was a housewife's worst nightmare, advertisers had us believe that her sweetest triumph was hosting a dinner party where guests gazed into their plates, glasses and, yes, even spoons and exclaimed, "I can see myself!" Flash-forward to 2010.

Turns out that the dishwashing powders and potions that magically transformed our dinnerware into mirrors contained phosphates, which are really, really bad for our lakes, streams, and drinking water -- so much so that lawmakers enacted regulations that forced manufacturers who were using these chemicals to go back to the drawing board and introduce nearly phosphate-free formulas this summer. Problem solved -- right? Wrong.

While the majority of Americans say they want to go green, watch what happens when a few people are quoted saying that the new formulations no longer give them spotless, "I can see myself!" glassware -- all of a sudden it's as if the sky is falling. (Or at least this was the premise of a New York Times article that managed to ignore all the consumers who say their phosphate-free dishwashing products work just as well, if not better than, conventional formulations. You had to go to the comments section to read this point of view.)

In any case, the lesson here is that there are plenty of people who think this whole environmentalism thing is great -- in theory. What a conundrum: We all know that plastic bags are bad, but remembering to tote shopping bags is so darned annoying, especially when stores are nice enough to supply plastic. And what a pain it is to schlep carcinogen-free water bottles when you can pay top dollar for H20 in its own "environmentally sound" packaging.

And then there's the cost. Going green is more expensive, yes? Actually, no. Green cleaning products, like those from Seventh Generation, can cost the same as their conventional counterparts. New energy-efficient appliances let us use less of what we buy, enabling us to get more for our money. Washing clothes in cold water lowers energy bills. (Line dry? Even better.)

Does a hard/soft water issue leave an icky film on your dishes? Don't run your dishwasher twice; try adding a little vinegar to the mix. (This tip comes from Seventh Generation's own Sue.) Another thought: Skip the dishwasher altogether and wash by hand using a phosphate-free liquid dish soap. If you run the tap the whole time, you're wasting water. But if you follow my sage sitter's advice and only use water to wet the sponge and rinse, you won't. She grew up in South America, where as a girl she rose well before sunup, biked miles to a village pump and then hauled back the two big buckets of water that her family of five needed for a day's use. If that doesn't teach you to conserve, I don't know what will. (For more on saving water, see my earlier post.)

We're not talking huge steps here. It's just about changing a few habits. In other words, what's more important, a vision of clean dreamed up by Mad Men or a truly clean environment?