I am so happy to be sharing this interview with Ellen Sandbeck with you!  Her book, Green Housekeeping is really great and full of helpful ways to live out our environmental stewardship values.

Amy: Ellen, as a well-known advocate for eco-conscious living and author of the book Green Housekeeping, I am so grateful and happy that you have agreed to interview with fotosympathetique!  Included under fotosympathetique’s green series, I have shared a bit about my own concern for environmental stewardship and, for me, the first place I began to demonstrate those values, was in my home.  What first inspired you to write this book about Green Housekeeping?

Ellen: In my first book, “Slug Bread and Beheaded Thistles,” I wrote about non-toxic housekeeping and gardening; in my second book, “Eat More Dirt,” I concentrated on just organic landscaping, so concentrating on non-toxic housekeeping seemed like the right thing for my third book.  I have always used only non-toxic products in my home and garden anyway, so the books felt like a natural progression.

Fotosympathetique: At this time of year, many of us are thinking about spring cleaning and what our cleaning priorities should be.  What are a few spring cleaning essentials in your mind and how do you organize your spring cleaning to do list?

Ellen: Hmmm. Organize. Hmmm. I am not really a linear person, which gets me in frequent trouble with editors.  I usually just make “to-do” lists and gradually work on them.  It’s a great satisfaction to be able to cross the last item off a to-do list. “Spring Cleaning,” in the traditional sense, was quite necessary in the days of coal heating, because the coal dust infiltrated every part of a house, but in these days of central heating and very clean-burning wood stoves, an inch by inch spring cleaning is not really the necessity it once was.  Times have changed drastically: we now have vacuum cleaners, steam cleaners, lots of cleaning products, and we are not sleeping on straw-stuffed mattresses that provide such good habitat for pests that the mattresses must be re-stuffed every spring.  If anything, we tend to be too clean, so why not just say you did your spring cleaning and go out for a walk instead?

Fotosympathetique: In your opinion, what are the five most important items/products to have in the cleaning closet?

Ellen: A gallon jug of white distilled vinegar, a fresh bottle of hydrogen peroxide (consumer strength, from the drugstore), a few spray bottles, a box of clean rags, and a box of baking soda.

Fotosympathetique: You often refer to the seemingly limitless uses of white vinegar.  It seems like a cost-effective and safe choice for cleaning, but what if the smell of vinegar just makes you gag?

Ellen: Wear a nose plug; once the vinegar dries the smell will disappear.  Remind yourself that the smell of vinegar will not cause brain damage, but the smell of synthetic fragrances in cleaning products can cause brain damage.  Eat a pickle before you start cleaning.

Fotosympathetique: What is your favorite cleaning tool, product, or routine right now?

Ellen: Spraying white distilled vinegar over every surface that needs cleaning in the bathroom, and then wiping the mirrors, counter tops, walls, shower doors, and then floors dry with a clean dry cloth (in that order, cleanest to dirtiest); scrubbing the sink, tub, shower, and fixtures with a scrub brush, and an old toothbrush, then rinsing them dry before drying them with a clean rag; wiping the outer toilet surfaces dry with a small wad of toilet paper.  Of course I also pour a cup or so of vinegar into the toilet and let it sit for a while before I use the toilet brush to scrub off the hard water deposits. Cleaning the whole bathroom usually takes less than 5 minutes a week.

Fotosympathetique: What do you feel is the dirtiest thing found in most homes?  any solutions?

Ellen: I don’t feel, I know because I read the research – the dirtiest thing found inmost homes is the kitchen sponge, closely followed by the kitchen sink.  The solution is to NEVER use the kitchen sponge to clean out the sink after you have rinsed off meat, poultry, fish, or fresh produce in the sink.  Sponges take too long to dry off, so they harbor pathogenic bacteria for weeks.  You need to clean the sink with liquid dish soap on a dish rag, and then put the rag in the laundry immediately afterwards.  Then, for good measure, you can spray the sink and faucet handles with white distilled vinegar and then with hydrogen peroxide (two separate bottles, a dark opaque one for the hydrogen peroxide).  This combination will kill all pathogens that might otherwise survive in your sink.

Fotosympathetique: We have a septic system in our back yard, so I’m well aware that whatever I put down the drain goes straight into my very own yard/garden/ecosystem.  Any advice on what not to use, or better yet, what to use to keep my environment healthy and safe?

Ellen: Don’t use any harsh chemical cleaning products.  Don’t use alkaline or acidic toilet bowl cleaners.  Don’t pour prescription drugs down the drain or the toilet.  Don’t pour pesticides or herbicides down the drain or toilet.  Don’t pour paints, varnishes, or other finishes down the drain or toilet.  All these things can kill the bacteria that make the septic system function.  The septic system is a living organism; it will be to your advantage to treat it that way.

Fotosympathetique: No matter how often and thoroughly I scrub my bathtub (with Bon-Ami and a little natural all-purpose cleaning spray), it still has a weird smell: not quite mildewy, but in that neighborhood.  I’m about to resort to splashing bleach all over but, before I do, is there a more natural option for deep-cleaning my bathtub?

Ellen: Try using white distilled vinegar.  Mildew is not at all fond of vinegar.

Fotosympathetique: What are your reasons for choosing natural products over other cleaning agents found in stores?

Ellen: I’m an abject coward when it comes to synthetic products.  If “cleaning” exposes you to toxic chemicals, what is the point?

Fotosympathetique: What, in your mind, is the most important change a family or individual can make in order to live in a less toxic environment?

Ellen: Quit using scented cleaning products.  Don’t use “air-fresheners,” which are basically scented petroleum products.  If you can’t understand all the ingredients listed on the label, don’t buy the product.

Amy: Thank you so much for sharing your great insights with us, Ellen! and for answering our questions!  So fun to get your perspective on how we can be better members and stewards of the environments in which we live.  Thank you also for your research and time in writing on this meaningful topic.