Just a few generations back, the formula for a spiffy house contained two simple elements at its core: a high stack of rags and plentiful elbow grease. Then came specialized cleaners (window cleaners, oven cleaners, furniture polish, etc.) and a newfangled wave of disposable cleaning aids, led of course by the ubiquitous paper towel.
No doubt that paper towels are convenient, especially when there's a puddle of freshly spilled grape juice about to hit the floor. But that convenience has its costs, both to the environment and your wallet. In the U.S. paper towels alone make up 2% of all landfill space. And if you pay $10 for an 8-roll pack that lasts two weeks, you'll spend $260 a year, when cloth wipes could've done the same job for just pennies.
This article examines some of the most popular disposable cleaning products, and what they'll cost you over the course of a year, along with far less expensive, more eco-friendly alternatives. (Note that yearly projections for disposable products do not include tax.)
Product: Mr. Clean Magic Eraser
Best Price: Mr. Clean Magic Eraser 24-Pack: $26.15 with free shipping via Subscribe & Save, a low by $17
Use: It's a soft pad that acts like an eraser to clean dirt and grime, and remove scuff marks and dirt from floors, walls, and doors.
Annual Cost: Usage varies greatly depending on the intensity of the task (cleaning a tub can use three erasers, while a single eraser can last a while with just gentle wiping), but we'll hit middle ground and say you could go through two boxes in a year across all tasks for a total of $52.30.
Alternative: Parents of toddlers swear by the Magic Eraser for its ability to erase crayon marks, but you can always think preemptively and supply your little Picasso with washable crayons for artwork at home. What's more, baking soda on a wet cloth works incredibly well in removing dirt and scuffs.
Product: Proctor & Gamble Swiffer Dry Cloths
Best Price: Swiffer Dry Cloths 16-Count 12-Pack: $45.43 with free shipping, a low by $1
Use: Used in conjunction with a Swiffer Sweeper, these cloths trap dirt, dust, and hair from floors and hard-to-reach surfaces. P&G claims a Swiffer cloth "leaves your floors up to three times cleaner than a broom."
Annual Cost: If you use four pads a week every week, you can survive the year with just the bundled pack above for $45.43.
Alternative: No doubt Swiffer dry cloths work well, and putting them on the end of a Swiffer mop helps you get at places where dust bunnies like to nest. But did you know you can make your own reusable, washable Swiffer pad from a towel and some string (or ribbon, if you so choose)? That's what Stepahnie Nelson did, writing in The Herb Companion. She also supplies a recipe for herbal floor cleaner!
Product: Clorox Disinfecting Wipes
Best Price: Clorox Disinfecting Wipe 75-Count 3-Pack: $9.97 with 97-cent s&h, a low by $3
Use: Used for disinfecting surfaces, these wipes are very helpful when cleaning everything from kitchen appliances to finished wood.
Annual Cost: Assuming a 3-pack will last you three months, you'll spend $43.76.
Alternative: While many elementary schools love it when kids bring in disinfecting wipes as part of their supplies their labels clearly state "Keep out of reach of children. Hazards to humans and domestic animals." You can make your own wipes easily, using cut-up squares of cloth placed into an sealable container (like a baby-wipe container). Then pour a simple solution of castile soap, tea tree oil, and white vinegar over the cloths.
Product: Clorox ToiletWand
Best Price: ToiletWand 20-Count Refill Pack: $7.98 with 97-cent s&h, a low by $6
Use: The disposable swivel head of the ToiletWand is doused in Clorox cleaner and is designed to get into hard-to-reach places of your toilet.
Annual Cost: Assuming a refill pack lasts three months, you'll spend $35.80.
Alternative: Let's face it: No one likes to clean a toilet. Anything that makes the job less messy and quicker is welcome, right? But a long-handled toilet brush should work just as well, doused in plenty of — yup — vinegar. Domestic diva Martha Stewart recommends as much.
Product: Endust for Electronics: LCD & Plasma Wipes
Best Price: LCD & Plasma Wipes 70-Count Canister: $6.99 with $3.99 s&h, a low by $1
Use: Remove dust and fingerprints on LCD and plasma screens. Clean your laptop, desktop monitor, HDTV, touchscreens, and more.
Annual Cost: Even with the numerous devices we all carry around in our lives, you could probably safely get through a year with a single canister at $10.98.
Alternative: You don't want to use alcohol- or ammonia-based products to clean your screen, but instead of using Endust, a soft cotton cloth dampened with a little white distilled vinegar does a comprable job. Using white distilled vinegar is safe, highly effective, and very inexpensive. And though this alternative may not save you a bundle, it'll certainly do more to help reduce waste.
In the end, deciding which disposable cleaning products we use often boils down to utility. The ease of wielding a toilet wand, for example, may trump all other considerations, especially if you're squeamish about washing out a dirty brush. But there's cost to consider, and that cuts both ways. The more you spend on disposable cleaning products, the more a toll you'll take on your household budget and the planet's ecosystem.
By our very conservative estimates, you'd save about $188.27 by skipping the above goods — and there are still numerous other disposable cleaning products that people include in their routine, like wet Swiffer pads in addition to the dry. And while that money might seem like chump change for a year, consider how far it could have gone to buy other things for the home, especially if you shop frugally in other areas as well. So while disposable products are here to stay, think carefully about which ones you use, and do your best to consume them sparingly.