A fish-friendly clean

Laundry

On the last day of school each year, I would arrive home to a station wagon jam-packed with everything we needed for a summer at the lake, including my mother’s beloved portable dishwasher. No matter that our cottage lacked a telephone or a shower, my mother only took roughing it so far.

These days, a dishwasher is not out of place at a cottage. Nor is a washing machine. (Nor Jacuzzi tub, large-screen TV and butter-soft leather sectional…but that’s another story.)

Many cottagers, though equipped with modern-day luxuries, are nonetheless also equipped with an environmental sensibility. We may not want to dip our hands in a suds-filled sink, but neither do we want to take a dip in a lake polluted by our grey water.

And incidentally, for those purists who insist that it’s impossible to be an environmentalist and own a dishwasher, according to a widely cited study from the University of Bonn in Germany, dishwashers use half the energy, one-sixth the water and less soap than hand washing an identical set of dirty dishes. So there.

The machines

It’s important at the cottage, as at home, to have appliances that aren’t energy hogs. Pay attention to those EnerGuide ratings or look for the Energy Star certification, which indicates that the appliance is among the most energy-efficient models available—up to 20% more efficient than models without the certification. Sending your out-dated appliances from home to the cottage might seem like a smart idea, but frequently what you spend in energy, which is often much more expensive at the lake, will outpace any cost-savings from avoiding another appliance purchase.

The suds

The detergent we use to wash our dishes (you know, the same dishes we eat off) is full of chemicals such as monoethanalomine (MEA), Diethanolamine (DEA), Triethanolamine (TEA) and others that read like an eye chart and can induce asthma. What’s more, explains Lindsay Coulter, the David Suzuki Foundation’s “Queen of Green”, they mix with nitrites (which are present as preservatives in other products) to form cancer-causing nitrosamines. If that’s not enough to turn you off, they’re also toxic to fish and other wildlife.

Dishwasher detergent also contains phosphates, though under 2010 regulations, it has been restricted to 0.5 percent, which can promote algal bloom, increase weed growth, and kill fish. The phosphate restriction is an improvement, says Coulter, “but why not opt for phosphate-free brands?”

Thanks to consumer pressure, The past few years have seen a proliferation of “green” laundry detergents, all promising to whiten your whites and remove stains without harming the environment. The detergents boast about being “free” and “clear” but are generally neither.

Coulter is a strong advocate for labeling that truly is clear, with all ingredients listed right on the containers. Without transparent labeling, however, it’s a guessing game. What we do know is that most conventional laundry detergents contain such chemicals as alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs) and Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs), which can mimic estrogen and have reproductive effects on aquatic animals. They frequently contain fragrance (even those claiming to be fragrance-free, which often use chemicals to mask fragrance), synthetic musks and phthalates, which are suspected hormone disrupters. These can build up in the environment and be toxic to aquatic organisms. They can also trigger allergies, asthma and migraines. And, like in dishwasher detergents, they can contain MEA, DEA and TEA—a toxic trifecta.

Fabric softener

I’m an advocate of line-drying clothes. The scent is fresh-air and sunshine (“Field of Faux Daisies” can’t compete with that!), there’s less wear and tear on clothes, and the sun doesn’t bill you each month. Sunshine is also, of course, a great bleach. If your line-dried clothes come out a bit crunchy, add ¼ cup of white vinegar to your wash cycle.

Fabric sheets can release chloroform, benzyl acetate, and pentane—all of which have been individually linked to cancer. Liquid fabric softener is no better and includes quaternary ammonium compounds, which can irritate skin, cause allergies, trigger asthma and—here we go again—are toxic to fish.

What’s a truly greener cleaner?

So now that we know what we DON’T want in our cleaners, what DO we want? These recipes, courtesy again of David Suzuki Foundation’s Lindsay Coulter, promise to clean clothes and dishes without cleaning out your wallet, while protecting our air and water.

For those of us who prefer a company to do the dirty work of producing cleaners, there are plenty of options on the shelves. Look for products that fully disclose ingredients on the label and ensure that they don’t include fragrance, sodium laurel ether sulfate (SLES) or triclosan. I love castile soap (make sure it’s made from plant oils), which is the perfect all-purpose cottage cleaner for scrubbing hair, bodies, dishes, dogs, babies, floors, counters, and anything else.