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This article is part of Rubicon’s Spring Greening series, where you can learn how to green up your cleanup this spring.

In many homes and businesses, the kitchen is the heart of the action—which means it’s often also the epicenter of domestic mess and waste. While it can be very rewarding to finally tackle a neglected closet, attic, or storage unit, few cleaning projects are as immediately gratifying and helpful to daily life as refreshing your kitchen.

The task can be overwhelming, so it’s helpful to approach the project as two separate chores: cleaning up (your counters, oven, floors, etc.) and cleaning out (your refrigerator, cabinets, and pantry).

Cleaning Up: Choosing the Right Cleaning Products

Scrubbing down countertops and other kitchen surfaces is not rocket science: many commonly available cleaning products can clear the crud. The important thing is choosing cleaning products that not only clean well, but do so without damaging the environment or creating health and disposal complications for you and the people you live with.

Many of the products we use for cleaning, like sprays, soaps, and detergents, ultimately end up going down the drain and into our wastewater, where they can have damaging effects on the health of humans and aquatic wildlife. Some products even qualify as hazardous waste by virtue of the chemicals they contain, and carry legal penalties for improper disposal. If not adequately rinsed from surfaces used for cooking and food preparation, they can also end up in our food.

A common culprit in the contamination of water—and the subsequent contamination of soil, plants, and wildlife—are surfactants. These chemicals are responsible for loosening the grime on the object or surface you want to clean.

Many surfactants biodegrade slowly, with half-lives that are decades long, and/or biodegrade into chemical compounds that are even more toxic. For example, according to the EPA, “alkylphenol ethoxylates, a common surfactant ingredient in cleaners, have been shown in laboratory studies to function as an ‘endocrine disrupter,’ causing adverse reproductive effects of the types seen in wildlife exposed to polluted waters.”

Furthermore, some cleaning products may, per the EPA, “contain chemicals associated with eye, skin, or respiratory irritation, or other human health issues.”

Fortunately, these issues are easy to avoid. For a quick solution, we’ve prepared a quick list of eco-conscious cleaning products.

For a more exhaustive repository of research and products, you can explore the EPA’s Safer Choice program and its list of Design for Environment (DfE)-certified disinfectants. If you’re short on time or money, remember that you can clean a lot of things with good old fashioned vinegar, or even baking soda.

Cleaning Out Your Refrigerator and Pantry

As we mentioned in our overview to the Spring Greening program, food should not simply be thrown into the trash! When landfilled, food waste contributes significantly to methane emissions, a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than CO2.

There’s a lot you can do with would-be food waste before disposing of it, and here are some tips for getting the most out of the odds and ends in your refrigerator:

  • Wilted green vegetables that are past their prime might not cut it in a salad anymore, but they can be perfectly salvageable by sautéing them or blending them into a smoothie.
  • Carcasses (like the remnants of a rotisserie chicken) and bones can be made into delicious soup stock or broth by simply boiling them in water with herbs and vegetables for 1 – 2 hours, and then frozen for months.
  • Vegetable scraps—like garlic and onion skins, carrot peelings, celery stalks, etc.—can be made into equally delicious and useful veggie stock. It helps to keep a bag of vegetable scraps in the freezer: add to it whenever you’re cleaning up after cooking a meal, and turn it into stock whenever you have enough time (and veggies). Avoid putting too many cruciferous vegetables (like broccoli, cabbage, or brussels sprouts) into your stock, as they can turn it quite bitter.
  • Fresh herbs—like rosemary, sage, thyme, basil, and parsley—can be frozen and preserved in olive oil, using a normal ice cube tray. They’ll keep for up to six months this way, and you can even pre-mix the herbs to your liking in each cube.
  • That crusty old jar of pasta sauce can be cleaned out, washed, and used for storage. It’ll make a great vessel for that homemade stock!

For food that can’t be culinarily saved, turn to composting before the trash can. Composting is an easy, energy-efficient way to keep methane out of our ai rand recycle old scraps into a helpful supply of nutrients for plants. Many municipalities operate user-friendly compost programs, but you can also do it yourself at home! To get started, check out Composting 101: How to Reduce Food Waste at Home and Work.

Once you’ve removed, reused, repurposed, or composted everything you can, you’ll want to temporarily set aside the food you’re keeping and scrub down the surfaces of your refrigerator and pantry. Here, more than anywhere, you’ll want to be careful to avoid using harsh chemicals: these surfaces have prolonged contact with the foods you put into your body. Baking soda or simple white vinegar will often get the job done—or choose from our quick list of eco-friendly cleaning products.

Composting in Your Commercial Kitchen

Beyond taking care of your home kitchen, you may also be considering sustainable solutions for excess food in a restaurant kitchen or other commercial kitchen facility. As regulations pertaining to commercial food waste pop up around the country, it is especially important to stay compliant and maximize your landfill diversion.

Fortunately, with the right process in place, commercial composting can be both easy and rewarding. By assessing your discarded food types, educating kitchen staff about separating food waste, and partnering with private or municipal organics haulers, you can set your business on a sustainable path. Whether you are working with source separated organics, packaged food waste, or even cooking oil, the Rubicon team can help you develop a strategy for organics recycling success.

Spring Greening icon

This article is part of Rubicon’s Spring Greening series, where you can learn how to green up your cleanup this spring.