Smart Consumer: Does it really have to cost the earth to help save it?
'Green' cleaning products are not as good for the environment as they make out, according to a new survey in Which? magazine.
Many 'green' claims made were misleading or not proven by the manufacturers' evidence, maintains the leading consumer magazine.
As the average household now spends nearly €300 a year on eco-friendly products, Which? decided to put most of the leading brands to the test.
It scientifically analysed detergents, nappy wipes and toilet cleaners. Most were indeed biodegradable and had some claims at least, backed up by hard scientific evidence.
But Which? also found that many had at least one dubious claim that wasn't backed up by hard evidence.
Tesco's Naturally toilet cleaner was taken to task for boasting that it contains no phosphates and leaves no hazardous chemical residues. This is true -- but neither do regular brands.
"Tesco says its product is significantly different because of its renewable ingredients," Which? reports, "but it will remove the phosphate claim."
On hazardous residues, Tesco is quoted as stating that its "citric acid and naturally derived ingredients are much kinder to the skin than the acid found in other products".
The Which? scientists claimed that all products have to be biodegradable to a certain degree by law and market-leading toilet cleaners are no worse for the environment after going through a waste treatment plant.
"Our scientists felt that there was no convincing evidence to show that the chemicals found in a standard toilet cleaner would have a significantly worse impact on aquatic life," Which? asserts.
So every time we flush heavy duty bleach down the pan we don't have to worry that a family of porpoises off Lambay Island will get a nasty skin rash?
Not quite. Environmental scientist and advisor to John Gormley, David Healy points out that in an ideal world all sewage would be given tertiary treatment that would remove damaging chemicals. But Ireland is far from an ideal world.
"Not much (Irish sewage treatment) is tertiary. Most is secondary," he says.
Which?, sold mainly in the UK, does concede that consumers with a septic tank would be better off with eco-cleaners.
And in Ireland that means 450,000 households, nearly a third of the total.
David advises these families to use only eco products.
"If you put bleach or strong chemicals into a septic tank you will kill off the eco-system that helps to break down waste. The tank won't work," David warns.
Waste water from your sink is hardly ever treated and often goes straight into our waterways. We asked David what effect bleach and hard-core disinfectant would have in our rivers and streams.
He replied: "They will kill things."
The sea has a much greater ability to absorb cleaning fluids but those porpoises would still probably prefer being immersed in the eco-friendly varieties.
So, how much extra do we have to pay to be nice to mother nature?
Not as much as you might think, according to our price samples (see panel).
Green brands are not that much more expensive than premium brands and are even, in some cases, cheaper.
But what about their performance?
I literally got down on my hands and knees to "dig the dirt" on this story by testing the cleaning products of leading brand Ecover.
Its performance seemed as good as any other for toilet and general cleaning duties. The dishwasher tabs, however, while adequate, didn't seem to deliver quite the same sparkle as my 'usual'.
However, this sort of nit-picking is not what being an eco-consumer is about.
David Healy is more than happy with the eco-friendly cleaning products he uses. "I use them for washing up and tend to avoid strong bleaches and disinfectants," he says. David maintains that green products are of a high standard because their production is supervised in order to be certified.
Actress Aoife Coghlan is big fan of Ecover and Irish brand Lilly's.
"Both brands of washing up liquids are great on greasy things. Ecover spray cleaner is good on surface glass in the bathroom and its cream cleaner works well on cookers."
"On some things they may not be quite as good as heavy duty cleaners for the simple reason that they don't have as many chemicals," she says.
But Aoife likes Lilly's in particular because "it's a small Irish company" (this can be bought mainly in speciality stores -- find out more on its funky website, www.lillysecoluv.com)
The actress really doesn't mind paying a bit extra because her choice is a "conscientious" one.
"What happens after these chemicals get into the water system? And what effect do they have on us?" she asks.
The US Environmental Protection Agency warned that indoor air pollution caused by chemical-laden cleaning compounds is a major issue.