Cleaning toilets the environmentally friendly way

First published October 2009, updated August 2011

Our toilets become dumping (excuse the pun) grounds for more than our own waste. In our efforts to create a hygienic environment, we’re often killing not only the bacterial nasties, but beneficial organisms and poisoning our waterways.

I was brought up to believe that for a toilet to be truly clean, not only must every single bacterium be destroyed, it must smell like a field of flowers and the water in the bowl absolutely has to be blue. My mother’s fastidiousness came from a good place – a desire to maintain a clean and healthy environment for her family.

The toilet received particularly close attention. Whatever ” breakthrough” product hit the market for keeping toilets looking and smelling cleaner; we bought it. I continued this habit for some years; but I’ve learned, particularly after owning a blackwater recycling system, that what I was doing really had no advantage. In fact, I was creating problems for the environment as well as wasting my hard-earned cash.

Many toilet cleaning products have chlorine, ammonia and hydrochloric acid asingredients, all of which are highly corrosive and can shorten the lifespan ofthe valve in the cistern. Additionally, while these agents kill bad bacteria,they also kill helpful bacteria further along the system that can assist inbreaking down our waste. Chlorine can react with other organic substances in theenvironment and generate hazardous compounds such as furans and dioxins.

Another chemical that may be found in toilet cleaning products, used mainlyin chemical toilets for camping and RV’s, is formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is acarcinogenic also shown to cause mutations in animals.

I researched some popular toilet products and found these otherenvironmentally damaging ingredients:

Diethylene glycol monobutyl ether – volatile organic compounds harmful toaquatic organisms

Sodium dichloroisocyanurate – very toxic to aquatic organisms – may causelong-term damage in the environment

Chlorinated phenols – respiratory and circulatory toxins

Triclosan – a cumulative toxin, primarily used for anti-bacterial purposes, but can also damage plant, animal and aquatic life.

Many of the de-scaling ingredients used in toilet cleaners are based on petrochemicals, i.e. crude oil.

Often these chemicals are not removed at sewage treatment facilities.

The big problem with identifying environmental toxins in your toilet cleaner is in many countries, companies are not required to disclose all of the components. Some products may also be tested on animals while in development. 

In addition to all the chemicals, there’s the plastics and packaging for these products; particularly the plastic cages used in rim blocks. The cages are used once, then thrown away – multiply that by millions of people who use these products and it becomes quite a substantial amount of non-biodegradable waste.

Greener toilet cleaners

Good hygiene is important, but as with other aspects of modern life; attempting to overdo it and maintain a sterile environment in the average home isn’t possible or beneficial for that matter. Regardless of what the marketers might tell you, our attempts at disinfecting the average home are futile and only help to breed stronger bugs while killing beneficial bacteria.

There are many earth friendly products available now based on citric (e.g. orange oil) or acetic acid (vinegar) that act on bacteria within the immediate area and then quickly lose their potency to prevent damage to other organisms not being targeted further down the system. These products are by no means inferior to heavy duty chemicals. I used orange oil a great deal during my contract cleaning days and it was as effective as anything else I’ve used.

Earth friendly toilet cleaning products will be more likely to list their ingredients in order to satisfy eco-savvy customers, so check the label of a “green” cleaning agent you’re considering purchasing and do some research of the ingredients on the Internet.

If the label is vague, call or write to the company asking for clarification. Also try to find products that use packaging made from recycled materials.

Environmentally friendly toilet cleaning

One of the best ways to keep your toilet looking clean is through a bit of elbow grease – regular use of a toilet brush helps to prevent build-up of gunk and breeding zones for bad bacteria. It only takes a few seconds to do each day.

Once a week, sprinkle baking soda in the bowl and use the toilet brush to scrub. The soda acts as an abrasive without scratching the porcelain.

For treating stains, sprinkle baking soda into the bowl and then spray with vinegar. Allow to sit for a while and then apply the toilet brush – this method also helps remove odors.

For keeping the toilet smelling fresh on an ongoing basis, I’ve seen it suggested to use 10 drops of tea tree oil in a spray bottle filled with water; then spray around the bowl and let sit.

If you’re looking for an earth friendly disinfectant, I have a couple of recipes here.

The wonderful thing about making your toilet cleaning a little more environmentally friendly is that it can save you money too – in our family’s case, we could have saved thousands of dollars over the years.