Green cleaning

My girlfriend’s apartment was dirty.

Elise Peterson is a law student, so this was to be expected. She flits from class to event to coffee shop to home and back because if she moved slower, she would be left behind. One byproduct of this is a living space that often appears to have been ransacked.

Elise is busy in the way you might say a presidential candidate is busy, but she had a rare night off awhile ago. And like any good boyfriend, I decide to spend quality time watching her clean her apartment while I wrote about it.

“Are all your cleaning products, you know, green?” I asked her before we started. (This was, after all, the point of the article).

She gave me a funny look.

“Stupid question,” I said. She grew up in a family that used nothing but green cleaning products (her mother, actually, is a fan of simple vinegar and water), and she faithfully carries on the tradition. These days she practically collects them, which I sometimes joke is a sort of law school defense mechanism.

Since she wouldn’t allow me to compare the performances of traditional cleaning products to green ones, I traded my intended scientific approach (“Which works better?”) for a simple anecdotal one: Do green cleaning products actually do what they claim to?

Of course, there’s a deeper question of beliefs and morals, too, because it isn’t just performance that leads folks to such products. But that’s not for me to answer here. I’ll just point out that green cleaning products generally claim to be made without things found in commercial cleaning products, like toxic chemicals (bleach, for instance), dyes, animal byproducts, fragrances (except natural ones) and anything else that isn’t essential to the cleaning process but might add flair to marketing efforts (like all those neon-colored, artificially scented dish soaps).

“If you start cleaning things with different products so I can write about them, I promise to finish your work,” I said to Elise.

“Good,” she said.

She started by putting several dead plants, including a leafless poinsettia, into biodegradable garbage bags. Biodegradable bags are only really worthwhile if you compost them and their contents — landfills are airless. Still, they’re a step up from plastic bags, which even anti-environmentalists acknowledge require copious amounts of petroleum and last, quite literally, for a thousand years.

We moved to the kitchen and a sink full of dishes. Law-school-student dishes. Bowls encrusted with macaroni. Dry milk glued to the bottom of glasses. A moldy tea bag floating in a cup of what used to be, well, tea.

Elise scrubbed the dishes with Earth Friendly Ultra Dishmate. The soap smelled like apricot, a scent the bottle said came from actual apricots. The dish soap also claimed to be free of DEA cocamide, which may be an important revelation to someone with a graduate degree in chemistry. In any case, the soap worked as promised. Elise washed a few plates and coffee mugs and then said something to the effect that the rest were mine.

She wiped down the counters with an all-purpose cleaner from Restore Products, a Minneapolis company and thus a revelation to anyone interested in the localvore approach to home cleaning. Restore has a whole line of cleaning products, and the bottles can be refilled for a fraction of their retail price almost anywhere they’re sold. The all-purpose cleaner consists of little more than water and soap, but the counters shone with little effort.

We moved to the bathroom, a soap-scummy shower, a water-stained mirror and a sink full of toothpaste remnants. She took care of the toothpaste in just minutes with the same Restore all-purpose cleaner and wiped the mirror with Bio-Kleen glass cleaner. Then she sprayed the shower walls with Naturally Clean’s Tub & Tile and shook some Simply Neutral nonabrasive cleaner on the shower floor.

“They have to sit for a bit,” she said, which was her way of pointing out that scrubbing the shower would also be my task.

Back in the living room, she wiped dead plant residue from her tables and stands using another Restore product, this one tailored for wood furniture. When she finished, the wood, too, shone.

Elise scrubbed a portion of her hardwood floor with Enviro-rite (another local company) hardwood-floor cleaner. It worked so well revealing the natural wood under a layer of dust that the prospect of cleaning the entire floor seemed suddenly overwhelming, and instead she rearranged her several area rugs.

Then she got ready to do a few loads of laundry with a nonbleach bleach (yep), a mix of hydrogen peroxide and water, and Seventh Generation detergent. She also has a natural stain remover from Ecover, which she says takes care of spaghetti stains (possibly other things, too, but she loves spaghetti and her odds of acquiring stains lie mostly with it) like nothing else.

In just a few hours’ work, almost improbably, her apartment was clean. Conclusion: every green cleaning product we (OK, Elise) used worked exactly as it was supposed to.

As Elise packed up some of her laundry, she gave me that funny look again. I played dumb.

“What?” I said.

She held the look.

“OK,” I said. “I’ll go finish the dishes and scrub the shower.”

Contributing writer Brian Voerding lives in Whittier.