Coming Clean

In our time-poor, electronic entertainment era, not many people have hobbies any more. It’s true, if you don’t count craft, that fiddley pursuit of turning bits of stuff into other stuff, which you don’t need and your friends dread receiving as gifts. My hobby has always been cleaning and although I don’t have as much time for it these days as I would like, it is never far from my thoughts. Recently I read that toothpaste is good for cleaning gold. I’m keen to try it.

And that brings me to the increasingly vexed question of cleaning products. While it is transparently obvious that the world of craft is manipulated by nefarious economic interests wanting to profit from (mostly) women’s weaknesses for the sensual delight of manipulating texture and colour into more texture and colour, it is equally true that corporate ogres lurk everywhere, ready to capitalise on (mostly) women’s weakness for a clean home. You can get into a lot of psychology at this point but I would say to the psychologists, when is the last time you wet-dusted the tops of your architraves, turned out your kitchen cupboards and thoroughly cleaned the corners of every room in your home?

Cleanliness is a virtue and with the flux of all absolutes in our post-post-modernist intellectual climate, we need to hold on to some standards. And just when you want to say, a bit of dirt never killed anyone and that many cleaning chemicals are potentially very harmful, I would say, exactly! Freshening up your rubbish bin with a spray can remains a problem, although ozone-depleting CFCs have been banned and the temptation to reach for a can is quite understandable. How many times has the family pet done such a good job of licking clean your dinner plate that you only needed to give it a spray of Australia’s favourite surface disinfectant to put it straight back into the cupboard? Very energy saving because you use less water and other chemicals like dishwashing products, not to mention power, be it electricity for the dishwasher or just that unfashionable animal product, elbow grease.

Like many people, I am seriously concerned about the damage we consumers do to our planet. Actually, just the other day, a friend sent me an email showing astronaut Sunita William’s photos of the world from space and the night shots showed the electric light glow from major cities, which means we are now also spreading light pollution into space.

The photos are from 2007 and the picture would be more lurid today, for Melbourne at least, if you consider all the development that has been taking place recently. We have a thing called “Melbourne 2030” that aims to dramatically increase the number of dwellings in areas known as “activity centres”, which is roughly anywhere within cooee of a shop or a public transport route. Closest to the city, you get the huge glass towers but there are even “apartments” – stacked, multi-storey flats – going up as far afield as Boronia, 30kms from the CBD. Then we also have all the new estates spreading on the outskirts of our megatropilis. That’s a lot of new light beaming up but that’s OK because much of it is from fluoros and they are energy saving.

Still, I can’t help worrying about the light streaming from concrete box extensions that are filling up every backyard where I live in Elwood, 10 km from the city. Being architect-designed “masterpieces” costing more to build than the much-vilified estate McMansions, they also feature the “smart block” mentality of reducing the outdoor size of the home environment. Since land is at a premium, many dwellings have done away with all outdoor washing lines, not just that aesthetic abomination, the clothes hoist. You don’t need them thanks to the clothes driers, which stack so neatly on top of your European 6 star rated front loader washing machine. That’s the way to live now and all the new residential towers and multi-dwellings are leading the way. And how could we forget the air-conditioned, year round comfort of 22° temperatures that you can set and forget? I don’t think that can be seen from space, yet.

Everyone agrees we need to clean up our act; getting consensus is the trickier bit and as long as we are bewitched by tough ducks tackling the filth in our toilet bowls, this won’t happen. As long as we are willing to believe that smearing toxic chemicals on the hard surfaces in our homes is the way to clean, we can’t whinge too much about all those corporations destroying our world and now, outer space. Nothing sends a message to the Big Boys like not letting your bucks pad the banana in their pockets.

You can still be spotlessly clean while saving both money and the environment but you need to do more than put a copy of “Barbara Lord’s Green Cleaner” (Bas Publishing, Melbourne) next to your six copies of the Tao Te Ching. You need to change the products you use for cleaning. Shock! Bi-carb soda, vinegar and soap actually work.

I’ve known about the power of soap since I was at school, when our geography teacher, Sister Theresia went on and on about “poll-you-tion” and how you only needed soap instead of all those detergents constantly advertised. She also used to say, “Girls, two things you don’t have to tell your husband: who you vote for and how much you’ve got in the bank.” That nun rocked.

Vinegar and bi-carb have only become my cleaning captains in recent times. But mea maxima culpa. Among other toxins, I’m still trying to use up a squirtey cleaner I bought more than six years ago in an effort to inspire my teenage daughter in her assigned household chore of bathroom cleaning. This product’s catch cry is “Shock” and its claim is that it actually works. The real shock is that it requires the same amount of work as any other product, including vinegar. Oh, also that I believed its claim and also that in the intervening years it has chewed through two other plastic containers but not lost any of its very pungent smell, which caused my daughter to refuse using it in the first place. There’s only about 100mls left and I’m slowly releasing it into the environment by cleaning with it, which is preferable to dumping it into landfill.

As a special surprise for my daughter for Christmas, her present includes, “Vinegar 1001 Practical Uses” (Abbeydale Press, 2009). For myself, I’m getting a new “wow chamois” that can suck up half of Port Phillip Bay. I need it to replace my super soaker that has worn out thanks to repeated flooding resulting from my water saving efforts in the laundry. The wow cloths come in a pack of eight, so, I’ll be able to give away a few as Christmas presents. For Tony Abbott, our newly-elected leader of the federal opposition, I’ve got one of my homemade shaker packs of bi-carb so that he can clean up his act and stop people being mean to him.

Blazenka Brysha


Correction. The following quote is from a note sent to me by my friend Dave Burton, who has a background in engineering/science and is an air transport professional: “What constitutes light pollution in space? I understand the concept as it applies to your backyard in Elwood, but space really doesn’t mind at all about a little bit of light. The light put out by the earth would not even register compared to the light put out from the sun. You said “we are now spreading light pollution..” Ever since there has been light in cities (late 1800s) light has been going into outer space, so is this a case of “if a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it..”? One last thing on the space angle, the Space Shuttle and space station, where the photo would have been taken, orbit at a height of about 330 km – Melbourne to Albury type distance so the fact that light from the cities can be seen from that distance with an uninterrupted overhead line of sight doesn’t seem particularly surprising.”

I am delighted to be 100% wrong in this case and I confess my concern about “light pollution” is principally to do with the unnecessary burning of fossil fuels in generating electricity that is used needlessly. But even if the power was generated by all the wind harnessed from Question Time in our state and federal parliaments, I would still be negatively critical of anyone’s desire to light up suburban backyards like a sports stadium for a night game. Humanity’s lack of respect for nature is nothing new but never before have we had the means to do so much damage to our environment.

Despite that, there is so much we can do as individuals in our own spending and living patterns. Business will always be business and its raison d’être is to make money but you can choose to withhold your money. You can also use your intelligence when shopping. Recently, at the local supermarket, in the cleaning isle, I found “Cleaning Vinegar”, costing just under $3.00. Reading the label, I learned that it was just vinegar. Generic white vinegar in the condiments isle costs about $1.20 for the same quantity. Perhaps the “cleaning” vinegar was really what is called “industrial vinegar”, which is incredibly strong and I believe quite nasty to ingest or get on your skin. Because it carried no warnings, I presumed this “cleaning” vinegar was similar to edible vinegar – either way you’d be foolish to use it because the ordinary, edible white vinegar is, in fact, what the green cleaning literature recommends.

an excellent Australian site for cleaning up our environment: