When you are stuck scrubbing a pan with baked-on grease, you know what a help sponges and scouring pads can be. There’s only so much elbow-grease a person can expend on a single pan.
Yet, the sponges and scouring pads you find in most stores pose a host of environmental problems — from manufacture to disposal. How can we use these kitchen workhorses without trashing the planet? Luckily, there are lots of eco-friendly alternatives to typical kitchen sponges.
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The Problem With Kitchen Sponges
What’s so bad about regular kitchen sponges and those flat rectangular scrub pads? Quite a few things, actually.
Sponges Are Made From Plastic
The bright green and yellow sponges you see in your grocery store aisles are typically made from plastic. According to The Center for International Environmental Law’s report Plastic & Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet, manufacturing and incinerating plastic produced more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases in 2019 alone.
Sponges Are Frequently Replaced
If 1 million households toss one sponge a year, that’s 1 million sponges sitting in landfills or being incinerated. If 1 million households toss out one sponge per week, that’s 52 million sponges. With almost 140 million households in the United States, that adds up to a staggering amount of plastic trash.
Sponges Create Microplastic Pollution
When you wash your dishes with a sponge, it sheds tiny fibers. These fibers, a type of microplastics, can’t be filtered out by water treatment plants. These end up in the ocean where they join the millions of metric tons of plastic dumped there every year.
Options for Recycling Sponges
Unfortunately, kitchen sponges and scouring pads aren’t easy to recycle. Like a lot of plastic consumer goods, you can’t throw them in curbside recycling.
TerraCycle creates mail-in campaigns for hard-to-recycle items. A review of their website reveals only one such campaign for recycling sponges, though, which accepts only one brand of sponge. (TerraCycle also sells zero-waste boxes. Some of these accept sponges, but these boxes are expensive.)
Eco-Friendly Alternatives to Sponges
Given the environmental issues of plastic sponges, it’s best to look for sponges and scrubbers that are made of more eco-friendly materials. The good news is there are a ton of affordable alternatives.
Be on the lookout for greenwashing, though. Manufacturers can use terms such as “non-toxic” and “all-natural” pretty loosely, so it helps to do some research. Here are some eco-friendly options.
Long before anyone made sponges from fossil fuels, people used cloth to wash their dishes. Now, eco-conscious consumers are returning to this simple option.
You can also cut up old clothing or towels to replace your sponges.
Unsponges are a popular alternative to regular sponges. Etsy has over 1,000 results for the term unsponge. Most of these are made of cotton, but many are covered in nylon mesh or stuffed with recycled plastic. Unsponges with natural fiber stuffing and coverings are available — you just have to read the fine print.
Cellulose sponges are made from wood fiber. Not all sponges labeled as cellulose are 100% natural plant fibers, though. Many are mixed with plastic. Also, some 100% cellulose sponges are soaked in chemicals.
You know how well a loofah works in the shower. Who says you can’t use the same kind of sponge on your dishes? Some companies even offer loofah kitchen sponges cut to a convenient size.
If you really want to go all out, you can grow your own loofah (Luffa acutangular) plant. Harvest the plant and soak it until the skin sloughs off the rough fibers and let it dry. (Note: Loofahs only grow in warmer climates.)
Coconut and Walnut Scrubbers
You can replace your plastic scouring pads with plant-based scrubbers. Grove Collaborative has a selection of coconut and walnut scrubbing pads. Since they are 100% plant-based, you can add them to your home composting bin, as long as they are not drenched with fats and oils.
A Clean Kitchen and a Healthy Planet
Keeping your kitchen clean doesn’t have to result in trashing the planet. There are plenty of eco-friendly sponges, unsponges, and scouring pads on the market. These earth-friendly options can give you a clean kitchen and a clean planet.
About the Author
Mary McDonald is a freelance writer based in Central Massachusetts. After working as a teacher for many years, she now writes about mental health, wellness, and the environment. You can find her on LinkedIn.