As America's consciousness gets greener, so do the contents of the cabinets under its kitchen sinks. Used to be, when you opened the cabinet doors you could count on facing an arsenal of commercial cleansers designed to combat every speck and fleck, each bottle and can plastered with dire warnings to the user.
Now it's vinegar and baking soda. And maybe a box of salt.
What Americans are learning is that, although those commercial products do a pretty good job, they tend to be expensive and difficult to dispose of properly. Not to mention toxic, caustic, corrosive, carcinogenic, flammable, volatile and explosive.
People are switching because the alternatives are safer and cheaper. But most of us making the switch don't have the faintest idea why the alternative cleansers work. Why are vinegar, baking soda and salt the magic green ingredients? Why not, say, olive oil and baking powder? Peanut butter and sugar?
A booklet put together by the Spokane County, Wash., Cooperative Extension Service does a nice job of explaining why, and it demystifies commercial cleaners in the process. With permission, here, in part, is what it says (the parenthetical remarks are my own):
Many commercial cleaning products are nothing more than basic XTC ingredients (with added stabilizers, fragrances, dyes and inert ingredients). Why not create some of your own? They cost less and you might even like them better. The common ingredients are abrasives, acids, alkalies and bleaches.
* Abrasives: Abrasives wear off dirt by rubbing. They scour off hardened food particles, grease, tarnish and stains. They are found in commercial cleansers. Sandpaper, plastic and nylon meshes (those little scrubby things) and steel wool are also abrasives. (In many green recipes, salt is used as an abrasive.)
Caution: Coarse abrasives feel rough and gritty. Regular use of harsh abrasives scratches shiny finishes of sinks, bathtubs and kitchen appliances. When surfaces are dull or rough, they soil faster and stain deeper.
* Acids: Some acids remove hard-water deposits. Some remove rust stains. Others take away discoloration from aluminum, brass, bronze and copper. Very mild acids include vinegar, which removes hard-water deposits from glassware, rust stains from sinks and tarnish from brass and copper. It also counteracts alkaline oven cleaners. Lemon juice has much the same use as vinegar. Cream of tartar sweetens coffee makers and brightens aluminum.
* Alkalies: Alkalies remove oily dirt without rubbing. They vary in strength. Baking soda is a very mild alkali. When mixed with water it cleans glass, wall tile and porcelain enamels. This solution also removes coffee and tea stains from china and plastic dishes.
Household ammonia, which contains 5 percent to 10 percent ammonia gas in water, is a moderate alkali. It cleans kitchen range burners and ovens, windows and mirrors. Sudsy ammonia has soap or detergent added. Borax is an alkali cleaner for woodwork, walls and sinks. Borax, like ammonia, is toxic.
* Bleaches: Bleaches remove stains. Chlorine bleach also disinfects. Oxygen bleach, such as hydrogen peroxide, can be used on many colorfast fabrics. (The chemical sodium hypochlorite may be among the list of ingredients on a jug of bleach. This means, like Clorox, the product is a chlorine bleach.)
Caution: Never use chlorine bleach with ammonia or with a toilet bowl cleaner or a rust remover because a harmful gas may be produced.
The "Creative Cleaning" booklet goes on to list some recipes that are too long to include here. To obtain a copy, send $1 and a self-addressed, stamped envelope to WSU Cooperative Extension, N 222 Havana, Spokane, Wash. 99202.
The Washington Toxics Coalition also publishes a Safer Cleaning Products fact sheet that includes very good recipes. For a copy, send $2.50 to WTC, 4516 University Way, N.E., Seattle, Wash. 98105, and ask for it by name.
When you're really becoming a homemade cleaning products gourmet, buy yourself a copy of Annie Berthold-Bond's "Clean and Green," published by Cere Press, Woodstock, N.Y.
The recipes for green cleaning products listed in the resources above are good ones: They will leave your house clean, sweet-smelling and non-toxic. They are not disinfectants, however. Do you need a disinfectant? Here's what Consumer Reports has to say on the subject:
"We think it's a waste of money to pay extra for those touted disinfectant properties. A disinfecting cleaner cannot sterilize every surface in a home or sterilize the air. At best, such a cleaner can temporarily reduce populations of some germs in a very limited area for a very limited time. Keeping a sick room clean -- with any cleaner -- and washing hands after contact with a sick person are usually sufficiently hygienic. If you need stronger germicidal protection, ask your doctor for advice."
In fact, most households do occasionally need a disinfectant -- to zap mold and mildew, for example, or to swab the basement floor after the sewer backs up. The least expensive and most versatile appears to be a good chlorine bleach. Keep a bottle on hand if you like, out of the reach of children.
And one last thing: Being green doesn't mean you need to be a purist or a zealot. You can't live without your spray starch? Your husband's weakness is silver polish? Be my guest. If you've replaced the bulk of your cleaners with homemade alternatives, you can well afford a few indulgences.
(Feeling environmentally incorrect? Write a letter to Ms. Household Environmentalist -- on recycled, unbleached paper, of course, using soy-based ink -- and send it to P.O. Box 121, 1463 E. Republican St., Seattle, Wash. 98112.)