YES! But How? :: Spring Cleaning

Troubled by the difficulties of a clean & green existence? Whipsawed by confusion because you want to live sustainably but you don't know how? Don't worry. Ask Doug & Annie!


Dear Doug & Annie,

I read that in one hour of operation, lawn mower emission equals that of driving a car 50 miles. Is there a lawn mower on the market that has less impact on the environment? —Mike, Kansas City, Missouri

Dear Mike:

Actually, there is now available a lawn mower that produces zero emissions. It's called a push mower.

Before you roll your eyes and say, “Awww, I want to live sustainably, not be a Luddite,” consider: for about the same price as a treadmill, stairmaster, or a few months' membership in a health club, you can get a great, aerobic upper- and lower-body workout in the comfort of your own yard. Somehow, for years and years, people kept their lawns mowed without benefit of any internal combustion engine at all.

If you object that your lawn is much too big for a push mower, perhaps it's time to consider a smaller lawn (see this column, YES!#14, for ideas on xeriscaping). Given the current corporate drive for privatization of the water supply, the days of great swards of bluegrass may be passing quickly anyway.

Failing that, go electric, although that merely moves the site of the problem from your yard to the generating facility. It still probably nets out better than a gas-powered model.

If you simply must have internal combustion, of course there are models that claim to be much greener than the old ones. Popular Science (June 2001) briefly reviewed models from Honda, Sears, and Lawn-Boy. But burning gasoline more cleanly is still burning gasoline.


Dear Doug & Annie,
I'm interested in proposing that the company I work for launch an environmental audit. What should be included in this analysis?
—Megan, Denver, Colorado


Dear Megan:

Simply put: inputs, outputs, production, and energy.

  • What comes in? Supplies, raw materials. Can they be gotten from cleaner, more sustainable sources?
  • What goes out? Product, waste. Can product be packaged and shipped more cleanly? Can waste be recycled?
  • How are goods produced? Are there steps where exposure to chemicals can be minimized? Are there alternative processes? For non-manufacturing businesses, what can be done to reduce paper use?
  • What types of energy are used, and how can they be used better?

For a straightforward, accessible treatment of one approach to an environmental audit, go to, which details work done at Princeton University.

The Citizen's Guide to Clean Production is a more detailed discussion of factors to consider in moving toward sustainability in the workplace. It's available from the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production at

For a very thorough, detailed approach to an environmental audit, see INEM's EMAS Toolkit. This is a document designed for compliance with the European Union's Eco-Management and Audit Scheme.



Dear Doug & Annie,
As we embarked on our usual round of spring cleaning this April, my husband and I began to wonder how the custom got started. Why not fall cleaning instead, to prepare for a winter indoors? Or winter cleaning, when there's nothing better to do?
—Anne and Gene, Eureka, Arkansas

Dear Anne & Gene:

The best explanation I've heard is that spring cleaning is a custom left over from times before electricity. During winter, everything in people's houses became covered with soot from the candles, fireplaces, kerosene, and lamp oils used for heat and light. By spring, every inch of the home had to be cleaned to rid it of the layer of soot. Since we now use cleaner methods of heating and lighting, it seems the practice of spring cleaning outlasted its original purpose.

Fall and winter cleaning sound fine to me, too. But if you go that route, it's even more important to avoid toxic cleaning chemicals, since you'll be shut inside with less ventilation for several months. Check out the nontoxic cleaning basics and strategies on the Green Living channels at



Dear Doug & Annie,
I love to grill outdoors in the summer—especially vegetables and fish. But I hate to clean that smokey, greasy old grill. Got any secrets to share?
—Jill, Iowa City, Iowa

Dear Jill:

You bet! Forget the steel brushes, rolled up sleeves, dirty clothes, elbow grease, and toxic solvents. Our great-grandmothers knew the right stuff for this sort of heavy-duty cleaning job, and it's both nontoxic and cheap: washing soda.

I first learned about the wonders of washing soda when I needed to peel wax off a floor. I'd read that this mineral was the basis of old folk formulas for tough cleaning jobs, so I decided to give it a try. Wow, did it do the job! I used a thick, damp paste, let it set for three to four hours, and it peeled the wax right off. I've been sold on the product for heavy-duty cleaning jobs ever since.

Washing soda (sodium carbonate) is also known as soda ash, and it can be found in the laundry section at the supermarket. It's a laundry booster, an odor neutralizer, and an excellent cleaner for your grill.

Grill Soak:

  • 1-2 cups washing soda
  • Enough hot water to cover the grills
  • In a pan big enough to hold the grills (the kitchen sink might work), soak them overnight in the washing soda and water. In the morning the grime on the grill will come off easily. Wash with soap and water, and rinse.



Dear Doug & Annie,
Why do they still sell mercury thermometers when mercury is so terribly toxic? Surely there must be alternatives
. —Mabel, Missoula, Montana

Dear Mabel:

I remember, as a child, playing with the ball of mercury that was rolling around on the floor after the glass fever thermometer broke. I was sad when it finally got lost somewhere. Now that I know how toxic mercury is to practically every organ system of the body, including the brain, I wonder that I'm still able to think!

Improper disposal of thermometers is a major source of mercury emissions, according to Health Care Without Harm, an international coalition concerned about the environmental impacts of health care.

They also note that “once mercury enters the environment, microorganisms in lakes and rivers convert it to the more toxic methyl-mercury, where it builds up in fish and wildlife. ... Most human exposure to mercury comes through eating fish. Pregnant women, women of childbearing age, and young children are particularly at risk from mercury exposure. In fact, the National Academy of Sciences noted in a recent report that more than 60,000 children annually may be at risk for learning disabilities because of mercury-contaminated fish eaten by their mothers during pregnancy.”

Luckily, mercury thermometers are on their way out. Minnesota recently passed a law banning the sale of mercury thermometers, and other states will soon follow suit. Many big pharmacy and retail chains now sell only mercury-free thermometers.

To find out a safe way to dispose of your old mercury thermometers, contact your county waste disposal authority.



Dear Doug & Annie,
I've heard that the purity of essential oils varies. Is there any way to tell if a certain oil is pure?
—Justine, Portland, Oregon


Dear Justine:

Some essential oils do contain petroleum-based solvents, which can be very toxic. They are often long-lasting in the environment, are stored in our fat, and are a source of volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) that negatively affect indoor air quality.

Do an easy test to see if your oils are pure. Put a few sample drops of your oil on a blotting paper. Pure essential oils will leave no residue once they have evaporated, but petroleum solvents will.



Dear Beth:

They are annoying, aren't they! Oil removes oil, so if the product isn't fabric or paper, apply some oil or vegetable glycerine, let it sit for 10 or 15 minutes, then rub until the sticker comes off. For fabric or paper, try white vinegar, but test it first in an inconspicuous place.

Annie Berthold-Bondis Green Living Channels Producer for and author of Better Basics for the Home(Three Rivers Press) and The Green Kitchen Handbook (HarperCollins, 1997).
Doug Pibel is a freelance writer living the simple life in Snohomish, Washington.


No Paywall. No Ads. Just Readers Like You.
You can help fund powerful stories to light the way forward.
Donate Now.