Washing the dishes up is something we all face every day. You might like it – I quite do strangely enough!
Even if you predominantly use a dishwasher, you’re still going to handwash some cups, plates and cutlery at some point!
Wouldn’t it be good if we could make this every day chore as sustainable as possible by making a small switch to an eco friendly sponge?
During this blog, we’ll take a look into the world of sustainable sponges, including a look at compostable and biodegradable sponges. We’ll find out which, if any, offer the best eco option for a more sustainable home.
Are traditional washing up sponges environmentally friendly?
For me, what comes to mind when thinking about a traditional washing up sponge is the yellow and green sponges.
You can usually find these in every home and office in the country!
But did you know that this type of sponge is usually made of plastic?
The dark green layer that makes up the scouring pad is made of a hard polyethylene mesh. The softer yellow side is made of polyurethane or another foamed material.
This of course means two things:
- Fossil fuels – finite resources, such as oil, have been extracted and used in making the plastic material for the sponges.
- Landfill – the type of plastic used is not widely recycled or renewable, which causes issues for disposal of these sponges.
Another type of traditional sponge that may come to mind is the natural sea sponge. These have been used for thousands of years for cleaning, personal hygiene and even as padding in Roman helmets!
The natural sponge we use in our homes is ‘made’ from the soft fibrous skeleton of the sea sponge. As this option is naturally occurring, it could be considered as renewable and also 100% biodegradable. This makes it a much more eco friendly option than plastic-based sponges.
However, there are two distinct issues with the natural sponge:
- Overfishing – since the 1950s there has been an epidemic of overfishing, causing a serious decline in wild sponges and therefore potential disruption to the marine ecosystem.
- Not vegan – even more notably, sea sponges are classified as animals. This makes this option a non- vegan one!
Why are normal sponges bad for the environment?
So, what’s the deal with traditional sponges – why exactly are these bad for the environment? Let’s take a look in a little more detail.
1) Plastic-based sponges
Non-renewable & non-recyclable
Plastic based sponges are bad choices for the environment due to their non-renewable status. They also can’t be easily recycled and are not biodegradable.
During the lifespan as a plastic dish sponge, the material slowly breaks down and releases microplastics.
These microplastics get shed into the water stream and inevitably end up in our oceans. It’s likely that these microplastics will make it into the diet of marine animals, and perhaps our own when we consume fish and other seafood!
Another consideration is the ‘antibacterial’ and ‘odour-free’ properties these plastic sponges have.
The chemical triclosan is usually added to the sponge, which has various health concerns associated with it, as well as issues of leakage into waterways. This is another consideration for our marine animals and our relationship with fish as food.
2) Natural sea sponges
The second option of natural sea sponges also has environmental issues.
They are harvested from the sea environment – what impact does this have on the environment as a whole, and the local ecosystem the sponges are collected from?
Some suggest that the harvesting of sea sponges is not the main threat to the population and health of naturally occurring sea sponges, with ideas that sewage and other industries like scallop dredging have a greater impact.
However, because sea sponges are an essential part of the marine web (filtering water, structural support and generally supporting coral reefs), why should we be removing them from their natural environment?
An answer to this is through sustainable fishing and harvesting.
These sustainable farming options use ‘transplanting’ techniques to duplicate the sponge population.
In effect, this is similar to replanting trees after cutting them down. One notable project is in Micronesia, which supports marine farmers by providing income for local communities, as well as keeping the environment protected and healthy.
You can read a little more about pole and line fishing sustainability here.
Main types of eco sponges
There are many types of eco sponges on the market, however during this blog we shall focus on the following 4 types:
- Compostable sponge
- Biodegradable sponge
- Eco friendly loofah
- Eco friendly scouring pads
The majority of alternative sponges are made from cellulose – a plant cell wall material if you remember back to high school biology class. It’s possible that these are the most eco friendly sponge type!
Compostable sponges are primarily made from wood pulp. These can be combined with other materials and ingredients such as chemical softeners, hemp fibres and also various dyes.
Although this option is man-made, the sponges are made compostable and biodegradable. They can be durable and long-lasting, good for those tough to get stains.
However, some manufacturers mix the compostable cellulose with less desirable and non-recyclable materials, therefore having a significant carbon impact. It also makes the could-be compostable sponges, now non-compostable.
Since the majority of people still use plastic sponges and rely on these for their washing up, new inventions which look similar and have the same properties make an easy substitute.
Natural sponge counterparts made from nettles or sea kelp, for example, are great biodegradable options and do not find themselves in landfill. Further to this, they are less likely to contain bacteria or mould (unlike the green and yellow sponges we usually use) without the requirement for harsh chemicals.
Other options include:
- Bamboo-based sponges – the pulp of the bamboo grass is spun into a textile which resembles a sponge. Read more here on bamboo sustainability.
- Hemp-based sponges – a fibre capable of absorbing 50% more of its weight in water. Take a look to see if hemp is sustainable.
The two above options require chemicals, such as bleach, during the textile process. Although this is common practice for many textiles it doesn’t make bleach environmentally friendly, which it isn’t.
Eco Friendly Loofahs
Loofahs are plant-based sponges, which are part of the cucumber family. This means this option is vegan!
This option is made from natural and renewable materials, meaning it has all the benefits of a natural sponge, but it is made from a plant, rather than an animal.
Additionally to this, it’s the option which looks the most like a natural sea sponge. Therefore anyone looking to replace their natural sponge might be more interested in eco loofahs.
Still, it’s important to ensure that the loofah you are purchasing has been harvested sustainably. As with natural sea sponges, inappropriate harvesting can have many negative effects on the marine environment!
Eco Friendly Scouring Pads
A scourer is an important tool in the kitchen – mainly for those pans that are left to ‘soak’.
You may use the green side of the traditional sponge, or you might opt for a metal scourer for the tougher stains. Both of these options are not particularly eco friendly.
Eco friendly options include those made from coconut fibres. The hair of the coconut can be used and bound with latex or other non-plastic alternatives to create an eco friendly scourer which does scratch any dishes.
Another alternative is using the coconut husk. This is the outside of the hard inner shell which can form a so-called ‘coconut doughnut scourer’ wrapped around a metal ring. Although these contain metal, which is not compostable or biodegradable, it is likely able to be recycled and is more long-lasting.
You can also buy scouring pads made from recycled materials. I’ve tried the Dishmatic recycled scouring pads, which were very good and last a long time. The only downside is that they can’t be further recycled and are not biodegradable.
Best eco sponge options I’ve used
I’ve tried and test a number of eco friendly sponge options. I try and pair with an eco washing up liquid to make the whole process of washing the dishes more sustainable!
Here are some I’ve tried and my verdict.
Excellent, super absorbant, multi-use and long lasting.
You can even machine wash this compostable sponge. It’s genuinely a brilliant product and I can’t quite believe that it’s also home compostable!
Comes in a small cardboard sleeve which is fully recyclable.
The Eco Living Loofah is home compostable and fully biodegradable at the end of use.
It’s a brilliant loofah – very durable and hard-wearing. It does a great job at removing the debris from those hard to clean pans. Very little packaging which is a bonus.
Another very good loofah. It’s very firm and fairly rigid, which can make it a little difficult to get right into the corners of a pan. This loofah does expand once it’s wet.
Still an excellent eco friendly loofah choice considering it’s both biodegradable and compostable. It comes in a small card packaging.
If you’re looking for an eco scourer, this one from Dishmatic is a fantastic option.
It’s an easy transition from a traditional scouring pad as it’s still made from plastic – just the recycled kind. Unfortunately it can’t be further recycled afterwards.
The Dishmatic scourer is a quality product and comes without much packaging.
What’s the best eco friendly sponge type to buy?
This is not an easy question to answer.
All options have their benefits and drawbacks. Based on what you’re looking for in a sponge, this answer may change.
Naturally occurring sponges and loofahs are the most renewable and biodegradable. However, these can come with marine ecosystem impacts from the harvesting of these organisms.
On the positive side, they are long-lasting and durable which is a huge positive for households looking to spend less money over time.
Man-made options which include cellulose based sponges should be compostable and are quite similar to their plastic alternatives. However, it’s important to consider the manufacturer procedures when purchasing – some will add nasty chemicals and less eco friendly materials into their products.
As ever, always check for official logos and third party accreditation when looking to see if a product is compostable.
Wrap up on eco friendly sponges for washing up
Traditional washing up sponges will hopefully be a thing of the past soon.
With many options available to us, at similar price marks to the traditional forms, you’d hope more people will opt for an eco friendly sponge option. As we know though, people’s purchasing habits often come down to convenience.
My personal favourite eco friendly sponge is a compostable one made from cellulose. I believe this to be a good balance between durability and function, as well as being compostable and better for the environment compared to the plastic counterparts.
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I’m the Creator and Editor of Tiny Eco Home Life. I write and publish information about living a more sustainable, environmentally friendly life. Away from the laptop, I love spending time in nature and with my young family (plus Murphy the dog!). I write and send out the Eco Life Newsletter.