It's inefficient being green

There's a downside to eco-friendly cleaners and laundry detergents: Some of them just don't work

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published September 22, 2010 3:01PM (EDT)

This week, the New York Times revealed the secret shame of many of us struggling to reduce our carbon footprints: plain old consumer dissatisfaction. As Times reporter Mireya Navarro writes, "New products can run up against longtime habits and even cultural concepts of cleanliness." And that's, quite literally, the rub.

With laws to reduce phosphates in dishwashing cleansers now effective in 17 states, the planet may be getting a greener, but are our wine glasses grungier? As a consumer in the Times says, the new products are "horrible." It's not just about dishes, though. If, in the past few years, you've found your clothes coming out of that cold-water wash in super concentrated detergent looking just like they did when they went in, you are not alone. While those who champion greener products and old-school cleansers like vinegar and baking soda say they do the job just as well, that doesn't jibe with our whiter white and brighter bright aspirations. Those heftier price tags for virtue are another stumbling block -- or as a commenter on eco bigwig Seventh Generation's forum summed it up: "Green cleaners suck. They’re hard to find, expensive and ineffective."

Worse still, to compensate, we may in fact be slipping into habits even more wasteful than our old ways -- washing dishes by hand after running them through the dishwasher, putting the laundry through a second rinse. This week I placed a well-intentioned order of organic groceries and simple cleansers from Fresh Direct -- and a single bag of coffee and bar of soap arrived in one oversize box. Environmentally efficient much? And with those low-flow toilets, half the time -- and I think you know the half I mean -- it takes two or three flushes to get the job done. The mighty old throne in my prewar apartment is like a rip current, but it's survived two kids with a simultaneous stomach bug without backing up or requiring a double flush. "The Good Guide," the bible of conscientious consumerism, not so subtly advises shoppers to "Switch Your Household Cleaner/Shampoo/Diaper to a Better One" -- "better" being the operative word. Is a product "better" if you have to use it twice?

It's not that being environmentally friendly can't be clean, beautiful and, significantly, efficient. A year ago, I spent a few days in the apartment of the Barcelona contributor for The shower did not provide a steamy hot deluge. The couch upon which I slept was a few feet from the worm composter. Clothes flapped on the line outside to dry in the Spanish breeze. It was not an antibacterial fortress. And it was utterly lovely.

Nobody ever promised that doing what's right is the same as doing what's easy. Living more mindfully means remembering to bring a shopping bag to the supermarket, scrubbing the countertops a little harder and surrendering to not always getting the stains out. Because, like it or not, the days of big frothy lathers are days gone by. And maybe the price of saving the world is that we all have to be a little dirtier.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Consumerism Environment