Green Your Clean

By Charlene C. Price
Illustration by Lucy Engelman

We are surrounded by fibers and fabrics, and just like everything else, they get dirty. Soiled by sticky children, hairy pets, everyday spills and environmental pollutants like dust and smog, they need to be cleaned. But how can we get our fabrics and non-washable textiles and rugs looking new again, yet still stick to our green routines?

The Laundry
Laundry is the chore that is never completed. According to Project Laundry List, a nonprofit organization that promotes cold-water washing and air-drying, the United States washes 35 billion loads a year, and all of this work can result in cleaner, brighter and softer clothes with just a few changes to the routine. Since most of the labor is done by water and agitation instead of detergent, it’s time to bust the myth of the full-cap load. All detergents loosen dirt and “grab” it, but using too much detergent actually prevents a full rinse and leaves dirt on the clothing to “cook” in the dryer. For normal loads with normal soil, use half of the manufacturer’s suggested quantity of detergent. For hard water, add borax to the wash cycle—it breaks down the minerals that interfere with detergent. For soft and fluffy clothes, add half a cup of distilled white vinegar to the wash or rinse cycle. Vinegar breaks up trapped grease and oil and dissolves uric acid, making it perfect for baby clothes. And to make homemade dryer sheets, sprinkle 3 to 5 (never more than 5) drops of your favorite essential oil on a small cloth and toss it in. You can reuse your cloth again and again—just wash and add more fragrance. And remember that cold water is just as effective as warm or hot, so save the energy and stick with cold-water washing cycles.

Carpet and Household Fibers
For a greener floor, avoid buying pretreated, stain-resistant fibers. These chemical applications can emit gases for months, so when possible, let a treated carpet “rest” in the garage or shed before installation. The best way to clean your carpet is by steaming it. There are eco-friendly cleaners available, but a combination of two tablespoons of vegetable-based Castile liquid soap and a tablespoon of borax in the carpet cleaner’s tank will do the job equally well. Pre-treat and blot with the same formula. For blood and other protein stains, put several drops of eucalyptus oil in a small bottle of club soda (small bottles keep their fizz longer), apply and blot. Sprinkle a fresh, still-damp stain with cornmeal, baking soda or cornstarch, let sit for 30 minutes, then vacuum and blot. Salt and baking soda work equally well on fresh mud. Remember, never rub a stain! It drives the staining agent deeper into the pile. And always do a patch test before cleaning the whole carpet.

For upholstery, steaming is again the best. There are several handheld appliances available on the market, and smaller carpet-cleaning units come with hand attachments. Check the tag (the scary one that says “Don’t Remove!”) for fabric-care instructions. Look for the letter “S” or “W,” or both. “S” indicates that a dry-cleaning method should be used, and “W” means that water can be used. Unless the fabric is silk or a natural fiber that may shrink with heat, it’s still possible to test-patch dry-clean-only fabrics in a hidden spot. As with fabric, too much soap can cause the dirt to cling to upholstery fibers. For fruit or wine spills on washable upholstery, sprinkle the stain with salt, remove the salt with a warm, wet cloth, soak in milk and launder. Fabrics with ink stains can be soaked in milk or hydrogen peroxide before laundering. (Hydrogen peroxide should be color-safe for most fabrics, but test first to be sure.) For a coffee spill on the couch, mix egg yolk with warm water (not hot, unless you want an omelet), apply, then remove with more warm water.

Dry Cleaning
Up to a third of a dry-cleaning chamber is filled with the solvent perchloroethylene, or “perc.” Perc’s toxic effects are well documented and caution should be used not only by homeowners with dry cleaning hanging in their closets, but also dry-cleaning shop workers and surrounding neighborhoods. Home kits are perc free, but contain chemical fragrances and softeners. Many fabrics that recommend dry cleaning can actually be laundered at home. Acetate and rayon can be hand-washed with mild detergent (no vinegar or other acid), cashmere and wool can be hand-washed with a low-pH detergent (vinegar is great on these fabrics to rinse out residue) and silk can be washed in a Castile baby (mild) liquid soap. For items that must be dry-cleaned, locate a retailer who uses the “wet cleaning” process. Your clothes will be brighter, fluffier and—best of all—smell like clothes again!