Do you ever wonder what your kitchen brush is made of, or if your sponges are recyclable? Don’t turn a blind eye to your kitchen brushes and sponges when trying to reduce your environmental impact. You might be surprised to find out these sneaky items contribute to microplastic pollution (and more)…
Do You Know What Your Kitchen Brushes and Sponges Are Made Of?
Cleaning your dishes and countertops is a daily routine. After nearly every meal, you find yourself grabbing your go-to cleanup tool to wash and dry that pile of dirty items. Even if you’re conscious of your daily waste, you might not think much of this everyday task. And for good reason– kitchen cleaning tools aren’t single-use, so they don’t appear to have the same impact as throwaway items like paper towels.
However, your cleaning products may not be as clean as you think. And it all starts with what they’re made of...
The typical yellow and green kitchen sponge is made of petroleum-based polyurethane. A detrimental extraction and production process means that polyurethane sponges already have a large environmental footprint when they hit grocery store shelves. Sponges that have an “antibacterial” treatment on them are also home to a host of dangerous chemicals. In the mix is triclosan, a chemical agent that’s been linked to cancer and is harmful to marine and plant life. Once they’re in use, these items quickly become a breeding ground for bacteria. In fact, studies show that plastic-based sponges are typically dirtier than a bathroom toilet.
While dishcloths are available in several different types of fabric, many of us prefer to use those made of microfiber due to its quick-drying capabilities. Microfiber is made of tiny, tightly spun fibers that are great at catching dust and cleaning dirty surfaces. However, these too are made up of oil-based, plastic fibers. The synthetic nature of microfiber dishcloths means that they last a long time, to be sure. But microfiber cannot be recycled, and it’s not biodegradable. This means that every microfiber cloth you’ve used is likely still sitting in a landfill (or worse, the ocean).
A go-to item for scrubbing off dried-on or baked-on food, kitchen brushes are part of most household cleaning kits. Traditionally, you’ll find these brushes made from a hard plastic wand with some silicone elements, and the brush head itself is usually made from plastic bristles, too. While these items may not harbor as much bacteria as sponges, they quickly wear out from use and must be replaced often. All of these factors play into the impact of a seemingly simple cleaning routine.
The Impact Of Your Daily Cleaning Routine
Because nearly every kitchen brush, sponge, and dishcloth you’ll find in a standard grocery store is made from nonrenewable materials, the environmental impact is quite large. Oil-based materials like plastic and polyurethane require extractive processes and leave behind byproducts that pollute land, water, and create toxic working environments. And, while some plastics can be recycled, kitchen cleaning items are rarely accepted because they melt at a different temperature than other types of plastics. Left to their own devices, these items take thousands of years, if not more, to decompose.
At first glance, the impact of sponges and dishcloths may seem small in comparison to bigger issues like pollution from transportation or food waste. But consider this: Because sponges are breeding grounds for bacteria, scientists suggest they be thrown out every week. This would lead to 52 sponges tossed in the landfill each year per household. With 122 million households in the United States alone, that turns out to be quite a lot of waste from sponges alone. Before cleaning tools hit the garbage can, they contribute to another sneaky environmental issue: microplastic pollution.
The Secret Menace: Microplastic Pollution
Microplastics are almost exactly what they sound like: minuscule pieces of plastic that shed from plastic-based items. Microplastic pollution isn’t easily visible in the same way that plastic pollution is, but in some ways, it’s more dangerous.
Because microplastics are so small (usually less than five millimeters in size), they can rarely be properly captured and removed from water or soil. Tiny microplastics easily float through filters meant to catch larger pieces of trash. This leads to high levels of microplastics being ingested by marine life. We’re not immune, either. Studies show that humans breathe in more than 13,000 microplastic particles each year. These tiny particles of pollution are finding their way into our food and water, too.
Recent studies have shed light on the effects of washing plastic-based fabrics like polyester and nylon. The washing of items like microfiber dishcloths and other textiles is attributed to 35% of the microplastic pollution in the ocean today. While there’s less information known about the specific amount of microplastic pollution emitted by sponges and kitchen brushes, we do know that these items contribute to microplastic pollution in a similar manner to synthetic fabric. In fact, you likely see your sponge shed bits of microplastic each day as pieces rip off through wear and tear. Every time a sponge is squeezed out and rinsed, those loose particles head down the drain and enter our water stream.
Ready To Kick Plastics and Microfiber Pollution From Your Kitchen?
Without a solution to stop plastic-based items from shedding microplastics, the answer may be to stop creating and using these materials for good. Just as with any plastic-based item, the production of sponges, kitchen brushes, and microfiber dishcloths relies on nonrenewable resources. They’re not recyclable or biodegradable, which leads to massive amounts of waste each year.
Rather than continue to feed into an unsustainable cycle, consider using alternatives to conventional kitchen cleaning tools. Eco-friendly alternatives are becoming more readily available, and are often nearly the same price as plastic-based items. This makes kitchen cleaning tools a great place to start out when you’re beginning to transition to a lower-waste or plastic-free lifestyle!
How To Find Eco-Friendly Kitchen Cleaning Tools
1. Look for tools made from natural, renewable materials
Rather than dishcloths that contribute to microplastic pollution, look for options that are made of natural materials like organic cotton and hemp. Choosing plastic-free fibers is the best way to put an end to pollution.
2. Choose Biobased products
Choosing items that are USDA Biobased certified ensures that your products are made from natural, renewable materials, like this 100% Biobased bamboo pot scraper. The Biobased certification means that you can be sure of the sustainability behind what you’re buying- goodbye, greenwashing! Looking for the Biobased logo when you’re shopping for new kitchen cleaning tools is a surefire way to avoid plastic and petroleum-based products.
3. Upcycle items you already have
Do you have some old t-shirts that are ripped up and ready to be tossed away? Instead of sending these items to the landfill, upcycle them into cleaning cloths. After all, the most sustainable thing you can do is use something you already have.
One sponge swap at a time, we can all contribute to a cleaner, more sustainable kitchen (and world).
Want to know how you can use your buying power for good? Learn about conscious consumerism, and use it when you shop for your next set of kitchen cleaning tools!