Bleach is incredibly useful and it can cover a variety of cleaning needs but does it come with an environmental cost?
Whether you’re cleaning your bathroom or disinfecting your kitchen counters, a brief look at the ingredients list of your household cleaning products will likely reveal that you’re using bleach.
Just because this chemical is highly effective in all sorts of situations, it doesn’t mean you should use it freely without taking a closer look at its risks and environmental impact.
So, how is bleach bad for the environment and what alternatives can we look for instead to help us go green at home and keep it just as clean?
How is bleach made and what does it do?
Bleach is the result of a chemical reaction between chlorine, caustic soda and water.
The manufacturing involves electrolysing a sodium chloride solution. The reaction between chlorine and caustic soda usually takes place in a large batch or in a continuous reactor. After the bleach solution is created, it is later left to cool and filtered to remove impurities.
Bleach is mainly known as a disinfectant and its main active ingredient is sodium hypochlorite. This chemical breaks down protein in bacteria and fungi, effectively killing all microorganisms, including mould and mildew.
Bleach is also used as a stain remover and whitener. Sodium hypochlorite is able to oxidise the chemical bonds making up all kinds of stains, effectively removing them as well as removing the chemical bonds of colours.
That’s why using conventional bleach on clothes can be a recipe for disaster!
If you wish to use bleach to remove stubborn stains on your clothes, the best course of action is to use non-chlorine bleach, as it contains weaker oxidising agents that won’t break down dyes.
Is bleach toxic?
While you might have heard of health risks associated with using bleach before, household bleach is technically not considered toxic or corrosive.
It does have a very pH though between 11-13, which is why it’s such an effective cleaner. Other good alkaline cleaners include borax substitute and soda crystals, both of which have a lower pH than bleach making them safer to use.
Legal definitions aside, sodium hypochlorite and hydroxide have been proven to cause irritation in the eyes and lungs, making bleach particularly hazardous to people suffering from breathing problems.
Prolonged exposure to bleach fumes is also associated with mucous irritations, painful burning, chest pains and lung problems.
However, the main issue with the toxicity of bleach comes down to its destructive effects on the environment.
Is bleach bad for the environment?
So, how is bleach harmful for the environment?
The first problem comes from the manufacturing of bleach itself, which produces plenty of chlorine waste. Resulting from chemical reactions, this chlorine waste can get released into the water system where it can create new toxins.
These toxic chemicals include dioxins and furans. Both of these chemical types are known for being powerful organic pollutants that persist in the environment without degrading and poisoning marine life.
Factories that produce bleach also end up releasing toxic waste into the atmosphere, either in the form of chlorine or other by-products. Unnecessary chemicals in the air contribute to pollution and ozone depletion.
It’s worth saying that chlorine in itself has not been found to persist in waterways and in the atmosphere.
Does bleach break down in water?
Contrary to popular belief, bleach does not lose any of its potency when first coming into contact with water.
Diluting bleach with water only makes the solution a little more unstable, meaning that it will have a shorter shelf life and lose its potency in about a day.
However, bleach will dissolve back into saltwater after prolonged contact with water. This means that any bleach flushed away or poured into drain pipes will eventually break down.
When bleach dissolves, it breaks down into hypochlorous acid and hypochlorite ion, two reactive substances that rapidly degrade in contact with any organic matter.
Is bleach biodegradable?
You may read in some places that bleach is biodegradable.
However, by design, one of bleach’s main roles is to kill bacteria and microorganisms. It is a biocide.
However, how is bleach biodegradable?
Well, it isn’t.
Bleach will not biodegrade in the normal way that organic substances do. This is because bleach in an inorganic compound.
It will however disintegrate through long term exposure to water, air, heat and light in the same way that everything will eventually disintegrate.
What are the best eco and green bleach alternatives?
So, if using bleach is bad for the environment and potentially toxic for our health, what eco friendly alternatives are out there for disinfecting, cleaning and whitening surfaces just as well?
Here are some of our favourite green bleach alternatives to help you make a simple eco friendly kitchen swap:
1. Borax Substitute
With similar properties, borax substitute is a superb alternative to bleach! Made from sodium sesquicarbonate, it has a high alkaline pH of around 9.
Borax substitute is a powerful cleaning agent. You can use it to get rid of all kinds of stains, mildew and mould, as well as more general kitchen and bathroom cleaning with your eco friendly sponge.
2. White Vinegar
White vinegar is a one-size-fits-all solution for dealing with most household cleaning chores. It’s not only a powerful and natural disinfectant but also a great stain remover.
You can easily clean and disinfect your toilet with a simple white vinegar and baking soda solution, as well as get rid of mildew, mould and smells.
3. Baking Soda or Soda Crystals
Why rely on caustic soda when you can look in your kitchen pantry to find the perfect eco friendly substitute?
Baking soda is a powerful whitening agent able to fight off stubborn stains in clothing, making for the perfect addition to your laundry routine.
You can use baking soda to make a DIY laundry booster for whites or even mix it with vinegar, lemon, and essential oils to create an all-purpose cleaning paste.
Soda crystals are similar to baking soda but are slightly stronger in their cleaning abilities.
4. Hydrogen Peroxide
Although it sounds quite harsh, hydrogen peroxide is one of the most eco friendly chemicals you can find – it’s fully biodegradable and non-toxic.
This chemical works wonders for killing bad odours, cleaning bathrooms, whitening laundry, and removing mould and mildew.
Just use a 3% hydrogen peroxide solution to deal with most bacteria!
5. Lemon Juice
Lemon juice is the go-to addition to an all-purpose white vinegar and baking soda solution. This is thanks to the citric acid content of lemon.
Lemon juice can help remove stubborn stains from clothing and surfaces, as well as help with bad odours.
Did you know you can also use lemon as a natural oven cleaner?
6. Oxygen Bleach
Finally, oxygen bleach is the eco friendly alternative that comes the closest to chlorine bleach in both its whitening and disinfectant properties.
Oxygen bleach is a by-product of soda ash, a non-toxic and water-safe substance.
While this bleach is most suitable for removing stains from clothes and brightening up whites, it can also be used to clean counters and bathrooms.
Just keep in mind that it won’t have the same antibacterial properties as conventional bleach!
To use bleach or not?
Bleach is a potent and potentially toxic chemical for both our health and the health of the planet. Its by-products have been found to severely impact marine life and add up to the pollution of our waterways.
Even though the manufacturing process behind bleach is bad for the environment and potentially harmful for our health, the chemical is still found in many everyday cleaning products.
It’s going to take a long time before bleach is completely phased out as the go-to household disinfectant, but luckily there are plenty of more eco friendly and safe options you can experiment with for a greener and cleaner home!
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I’m the Creator and Editor of Tiny Eco Home Life. I write and publish information about more sustainable, environmentally friendly living in and around the home. Alongside this website, I love spending time in the natural world, living a simple life and spending time with my young family (Murphy the dog!) I round up my thoughts and recent blogs on the Eco Life Newsletter.