How to Go Green: Spring Cleaning

spring cleaning dusting files large photo

Photo credit: Getty Images / Martin Poole

Throwing open the windows on the first warm day of the year is one of life's great pleasures--until, of course, all that sunlight and breeze makes you realize how dusty, dirty, and cluttered your house has become during the winter hibernation. Even the messiest among us get the urge for spring cleaning--and though we don't all act on it, those of us who do should keep the annual scrub-down as green as possible.

In this guide, we'll show you how to reduce, reuse, and recycle the clutter that's blocking your access to summer essentials like the beach chairs and the barbecue; how to clean your home from roof to floor with non-toxic, homemade household cleaners; and how to get--and stay--organized without investing in a pile of plastic storage bins. Who knows? You just might love your new, clean, green space so much that next year?s spring cleaning won't even be necessary--so you can head right outside at the first sign of warm weather.

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Top Green Spring Cleaning Tips

  1. Reduce
    The first step to fighting messes and keeping your home spic-and-span is getting rid of all that stuff you never use. Go through all the places where it accumulates--try closets, junk drawers, out-of-reach shelves, attics and basements, and any other place where you're inclined to toss stuff as you say, "I'll deal with this later"and be diligent about-- separating out what you really will use someday from what you never will. Be honest: you may say you like that sweater your aunt gave you for Christmas in 2004, but if it still has the tags on it, you aren't ever going to wear it. And be practical: do you really need that quesadilla maker? We're not suggesting that you trim down to an uber-minimalist lifestyle, but the quickest way to cut your cleaning time is to simply have less stuff to clean.

  2. Reuse
    Now you have a pile that you're ready to get rid of--but wait: don't just trash it. First, go through and see if any of those items could serve a purpose you haven't thought of before: Do you have enough books to stack up and use as a side table? Can you take the frames off those ugly paintings and use them elsewhere? We know of ways to reuse everything from single mittens and broken guitar strings to holiday greeting cards and ceramic tiles--so while we aren't suggesting you keep all this around just in case, see if any of what you have can save you from buying something else.

  3. Donate
    Once you've taken stock of what you can use, separate out items that someone else might need. This includes dishes, kitchen gadgets, clothes, books, magazines, toys, home decor--all of these items could find a second life with someone else. If you need instant gratification, just drop it all off at your local Goodwill or Salvation Army; if you're slightly more patient, try offering items for sale or barter on Craigslist, turning your goods over to an artist, donating through Freecycle, or seeing what you can get for that collection of comic books on eBay. Your house will be less cluttered; someone else can skip buying new; and the landfills will be that much emptier.

  4. Recycle
    Once you've exhausted all the other options, it's time to hit the recycling bucket. Of course you're already recycling newspapers, magazines, and any glass that isn't salvageable, but take a second look at the rest of your trash, too: did you clean out the fridge? Find a compost pile. Get rid of old electronics, from cell phones to VCRs to ancient computers, by passing them off to retailers with a recycling program or to a specialized electronics recycling company. Check anything plastic to make sure it's recyclable, and make sure to safely dispose of anything that's not recyclable or trash-friendly, like old paint or batteries.

  5. Get the right home organization tools
    Now that you've managed to weed out the useless from the useful, you need to find a system for organizing what you've got left--because if you can't find something when you need it, you'd might as well not have it at all. For this, you'll need storage containers, but that doesn't mean you need to stock up on (non biodegradable) plastic bins; instead, try cardboard boxes wrapped in pretty paper, bamboo baskets, or cloth bags made from old t-shirts. Raise your storage with eco-friendly shelving to free up floorspace and make your rooms look bigger. And note: if, while you're organizing, you find items that don't seem to fit with anything else, those are likely goods you could add to the "donate" pile.

  6. Make your own household cleaning supplies
    Buying eco-friendly cleaning supplies is a good start, but for a truly green clean, make your own cleaners. You'll bypass the resources that go into production, shipping, and purchasing--from making that plastic spray bottle to getting the product to your local supermarket--and you'll save a ton of money. Most of your home can be cleaned with recipes that are a combination of hot water, vinegar, and baking soda or washing soda; add a few drops of essential oil for scent if you prefer. Since you're only making what you need as you need it, you're cutting back on waste, and you won't have any worries about what kind of toxins you may be spraying around your kids and pets.

  7. Aim for a no-waste clean
    No matter how green your sprays and scrubs may be, if you use an entire roll of paper towels to scrub your bathroom--well, that is not exactly eco-friendly cleaning. And when you're looking at a project as big as this one, you'll want to leave little to no waste in your wake. Trade paper towels for reusable microfiber cloths or sponges, and ditch the Swiffer sweeper for a broom (preferably one you already have, of course) or the disposable mop for a reusable one.

  8. Choose natural cleaning for big projects
    Sure, you vacuum, dust, and wipe the counters on a daily or weekly basis, but spring is the perfect time to focus on the spaces you generally gloss over--by vacuuming out the refrigerator coils to make the appliance more efficient, deep-cleaning your carpet, and washing your drapes. For the carpet, mix borax and essential oil together, sprinkle over the rug, let it sit, and then vacuum; for curtains and drapes that are machine washable, use an eco-friendly detergent. If they're not up to going in the washer, find an eco-friendly dry cleaner in your area and drop them off there.

  9. Go paperless
    This is one we've mentioned before--it's a great way to green your home office--but your annual spring cleaning is a perfect reminder to make sure you aren't overwhelmed by junk mail. Using a service like GreenDimes or 41 pounds, stem the tide of incoming junk mail; then set up your bank account for online billing and payments to cut back on waste. You'll have fewer papers to file and keep track of, plus fewer forests will be decimated just for another J. Crew catalog. And as your magazine subscriptions expire, see if you can read online instead to keep your living space even more clutter-free.

  10. Plan ahead
    If you keep these tips in mind all year, then your 2010 spring cleaning will be that much easier. Don't let stuff accumulate in your home; don't buy things you don't need; and don't be shy about returning gifts you won't ever use. Take advantage of the seasons to edit your collections and donate or sell goods--you might get more at a consignment shop for a winter coat in the fall then in the spring, and your yard sale of extra housewares may do better in late summer if you can catch the back-to-college crowd. Thinking green throughout all areas of your life--from your office to your wardrobe to your home electronics--will put you ahead of the game come next spring.

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Learn More About Green Spring Cleaning

Home Cleaning Supplies

The strength of any deep clean comes from the supplies you use to wipe, polish, scrub, and soak--but that doesn't mean you have to stock up on sprays and powders that are made of potentially toxic antibacterial chemicals. Find out how using kitchen staples--like vinegar, baking soda, and good old hot water--can get your house as sparkling clean as anything on the shelves (at a fraction of the price), and how those once-a-year jobs (like vacuuming the refrigerator coils) can make your home more efficient than you realized.

So What's So Wrong With Conventional Cleaning Products?

On the surface, they're great at what they do, repelling dirt, dust, and grime with nothing more than a spritz and some elbow grease. But many of these cleaners contain toxic ingredients that, while safe in small amounts, could have unknown long-term side effects--like phthalaltes, which help products hold onto fragrances, but may cause birth defects; volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which lower indoor air quality and can be connected to respiratory problems; phosphates, which break down dirt but can also affect algae when they enter the water supply; petrochemicals, or petroleum-based by-products that have been linked to cancer; and chlorine bleach, which disinfects but can cause serious health problems.

Many of these ingredients are the same compounds you are working to eliminate from your furniture, beauty routine, and laundry processes; if they don't have a place in your living room, medicine cabinet, or closet, they shouldn't be in your cleaning supplies, either.

Avoiding Toxic Ingredients in Cleaners

Since the EPA doesn't require manufacturers to list every ingredient in a household cleaner, it can be hard to know exactly what you're getting. Look for supplies or kits that are plant-based and fragrance-free, and that promise to not contain the chemicals listed above. Products that don't test on animals are a plus, as are ones that are biodegradable as well as biocompatible (biodegradable means they'll break down into their original ingredients, which is fine unless those ingredients aren't natural; biocompatible products break down into water that's safe for reuse). And be wary of companies that claim their product is "99% natural"--there's no way of knowing what might be in that unlisted 1%.

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Where to Buy Green Spring Cleaning Supplies

Cleaning Products
Seventh Generation
Mrs. Meyers
Clorox Green Works
Cloths, Pads, and Towels
Mystic Maid Reusable Cleaning Cloths
Home Organization Shelves and Storage
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Learn More About Green Spring Cleaning

Home organization

Get a jump on your spring cleaning by tackling all of your home's trouble spots, from junk drawers and closets to garages and attics--because having less to clean makes the job go that much more quickly. Once you've managed to get rid of those magazines you'll never read and those clothes you'll never wear, find green ways to get them out of your house, from donating and recycling to selling or reusing--which can help make someone else's life a little greener, too.

Green your cleaning processes from attic to basement with our How to Go Green: Cleaning guide, and make sure your cleaning kit is stocked with eco-friendly scrubs and sprays with the Buy Green: Cleaning Supplies guide.

For a closer look at some of the companies offering green cleaners, see Treehugger's posts on Ecoconcepts, B_E_E, OptionsforLife, Method, and Seventh Generation.

And give a deep clean to items you may have never thought of--including your condiments, your garden, your yoga mat and your nose.

More spring cleaning info from around the web

See what Domino magazine had to say about eco-friendly products that do the work for you, from washing machines to vacuum cleaners--or if you really don't want to pick up a mop, hire an eco-friendly cleaning company.

For more DIY cleaning supply recipes, check out Clean and Green, or this slideshow from The Daily Green. Green America focuses on greening your laundry and clothes care, while the Sierra Trading Post recommends opening the windows as your first step.

How to Go Green: Spring Cleaning
Throwing open the windows on the first warm day of the year is one of life's great pleasures--until, of course, all that sunlight and breeze makes you realize how dusty, dirty, and cluttered your house has

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