What's the Difference Between Cellulose Sponges and Those Other Kitchen Sponges?

All sponges are not the same. Nyvit-art/Shutterstock

Q: I’ve noticed that each of my friends has preferred household cleaning paraphernalia that they can’t live without — state-of-the-art vacuums, feather dusters, spray bottles of diluted white vinegar. Me? I’m a sponge kind of gal. I keep a well-stocked arsenal of sponges — there’s a dedicated sponge-shelf in my pantry — for any kind of clean-up job around the house, not just the dishes. I like to mix it up when it comes to sponge purchasing ... sometimes I’ll go for ones with scouring pads, antibacterial ones, ones that are a bit more festively colored than just the standard green/yellow.

Despite my sponge love, I’ve never really stopped to think about what sponges are made from. Knowing that sponges are bacteria magnets, I throw multiple not-necessarily-dead sponge soldiers away each month. I’ve started to think that this probably isn’t the most environmentally responsible action if they’re made from plastic. I’ve heard that cellulose sponges are a good, green alternative to plastic-based ones. But aren’t those synthetic, too? Is there some way I can prolong the life of a germy sponge without having to throw it away?

Talk to me ... I’m like a sponge,

— Dawn, Kew Gardens, New York

Hey Dawn,

We all have our eco-weaknesses around the house (I really need to lay off the paper towels even if they’re recycled-content) and I’d say going through a few sponges a month isn’t the absolute worst green household crime that you could commit. However, buying less environmentally dubious sponges and keeping them out of landfills a bit longer is a pretty painless fix.

First off, no matter what kind of sponge you end up buying, keep it around a bit longer by performing a little DIY germ slaughter. Some experts recommend microwaving the sponge for 30 seconds every few days or washing it in the dishwasher. However, a new study finds that the strongest bacteria might survive the microwave. Instead, you should run it through the washing machine at the hottest setting using detergent and bleach. Or reassign it to the bathroom where hygiene isn't quite so critical.

And, yep, sponges are often but not always made from one of Mother Nature’s least favorite substances: oil-based, landfill-clogging plastic. Let’s say you toss one possibly germy plastic polyfoam sponge in the trash a week. It’s no doubt a safe hygienic move but this means that a year’s worth of sponges will be taking up landfill space for upwards of 52,000 years. Aye yiy yiy! Your house may be spotless, but the mess you’re making in landfills will never go away in your lifetime.

You also mention that you buy antibacterial sponges. Avoid 'em. Most have been treated with the antibacterial/antifungal agent triclosan, an environmentally harmful pesticide that’s been wreaking havoc on aquatic ecosystems for some time now.

This leaves us with cellulose sponges. Pure cellulose sponges are, unfortunately, not as prevalent as plastic ones — and probably a bit more pricey — but you should be able to find them with no real problem ... just make sure they’re 100 percent cellulose with no polyester filling. Cellulose sponges are made from wood fibers and although man-made, they’re far more “green” than plastic ones since they biodegrade in landfills and go through a far less toxic manufacturing process. Some reliable manufacturers of biodegradable cellulose kitchen sponges I have on my radar are Full Circle and Twist.

Pretty straightforward, eh? My closing advice that I’d hope to implant into your sponge-like and sponge-loving brain, Dawn: the next time the blue- and green-tinged sponge aisle at the supermarket beckons (which sounds like frequently), keep in mind that you’ll eventually be throwing away a pesticide-soaked piece of sponge-y plastic into a landfill for thousands of years. Opt for cellulose.