12/09/2010 01:22 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Cleaning House the Old-Fashioned Way

About a year ago, I decided I was tired of buying liquid cleaners that are mostly water. You know what I mean -- the ubiquitous quart squirt bottles filled with pretty colored liquids that overflow the cleaning products aisle at the grocery store. All of them have several things in common. The bottles are plastic and designed to be disposable (a huge landfill problem), and they are filled with something I already have at my house -- water. So, why can't I just buy the cleaning agent and mix it with my own water? If I did that, I would no longer have to lug home extra water that I paid to have shipped from somewhere else. Frankly, I don't want to pay the cost of shipping water from the manufacturer to my nearby grocery store, when I have perfectly fine water available in my home. So for the last few months, I've been researching cleaning products, and though what I've learned isn't surprising, I think most of us never consider what costs are involved.

For the sake of discussion, suppose each household uses one 32-ounce bottle of liquid cleaner annually. As of the last census, there were just over 100 million households in this country. To make 100 million plastic bottles, at 6 bottles per gallon of oil, we use 400,000 barrels of oil -- and then at the end of the year, we bury them all in a landfill. If we re-used all those bottles, that would help. But we don't.

Then there's the water part. If 90% of the content is water (look at the water content of Windex, for example), that's about 25 million gallons that is being shipped around the country -- in big trucks that use oil for fuel. Do you really want to pay for oil to be imported into this country so that it can be used to bring water to your house?

Enough statistics. There are great cleaning products available today that don't need any more water than what is available from your own tap. There's Spic and Span for floors, and Bon Ami Powder Cleanser, which, when mixed with water, does a great job on most bathroom surfaces. And what about 20 Mule Team Borax, which, like Bon Ami, has been around for over a hundred years? And then there's Arm & Hammer Baking Soda, a simple and effective cleaner with many uses. Some jobs do require a more liquid approach -- windows, for instance. Here's where a newly-formulated approach really shines -- it's a tablet that you drop into a reusable quart spray bottle, fill with your own tap water, and you've got Conserve Cleaner, which was recently honored as the Environmentally-friendly Product of the Year for 2010. I've been looking for someone to market this idea for ages, and it's nice to see that it comes from a small but well-established company noted for innovation -- Baumgarten's. Imagine if would could keep 3 out of every 4 plastic bottles out of the landfills while reducing the cost of shipping cleaning products by 85% -- and then have that savings passed on to us!

So, for now, I've gone back to the more basic approach to cleaning, using the dry products that worked just fine for my Mom fifty years ago. No more big plastic jugs of Tide, filled with that gooey concentrated liquid they call detergent. The powders seem to work just as well. And, best of all, I don't have to lug all that water home any more!

Thanks to Matt Hickman, whose series entitled "Back to Basics," inspired this article.