Are plastic-free sponges effective cleaners? We tested some
The challenger: dried-on food and toothpaste smears
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Reducing plastic waste is on everyone’s minds these days, and there are hundreds of small steps everyone can take to do so. An easy option to start is to switch to using alternative materials in your household.
Most popular household cleaning sponges on the market (specifically the kind with an abrasive side that boosts scrubbing power) are made of some combination of cellulose, nylon, and polypropylene, so while they’re great at removing food and grime from your dishes, they’ll sit forever in a landfill.
Yes, cellulose is a natural material that is biodegradable, but nylon, polypropylene, and the adhesives that are used to hold the rough and smooth sides of sponges together are not.
In an effort to be more eco-focused with our spring cleaning endeavors, we tested four “natural” sponges to see if they were effective enough to replace our traditional plastic sponge and nylon-bristled dish brush, and we came away with some interesting results.
We tested four natural sponges
Each of the four cleaning sponges we tested bill themselves as natural or manufactured sustainably. We tested a natural sea sponge, the Grove Collaborative coconut scrubber sponge, Public Goods’ walnut scrubber sponge, and Blueland’s scrub sponge.
Our first surprise was that of these four “natural” sponges, all billed as “eco-friendly,” only the naturally harvested sea sponge and the Blueland sponge (made of cellulose, cotton, and loofah) are 100% plastic-free and compostable.
The Grove Collaborative and Public Goods sponges both contain plastic. (In Grove’s case, the scouring side of the sponge contains ground coconut shells and recycled plastic fibers. When we reached out to Public Goods, they confirmed that their walnut-based scrubbing abrasive also contains plastic.)
The Grove and Public Goods cleaning sponges are the two sponges that are most like a traditional scrubber sponge, and they worked just as effectively as a traditional scouring pad, but unfortunately I assume that’s because they utilize the same kind of spun plastic fibers that are so effective at scouring stuck-on food from our pots and pans.
Here’s how we tested the natural cleaning sponges
Let me preface our testing process by saying that I am the type of person who can live with mess, which was a benefit to this experiment. Every couple days, I would purposely drip my morning coffee, midday smoothie, and either some jelly or a dab of tomato sauce on to my counter to let them dry for at least 24 hours in order to test how well the sponges could clear away dried-on food. (Lucky for me, it’s still cold out, and I don’t have ants … yet.)
Once the food had dried, I would wipe down my counters with a damp sponge, gauging how much effort was required and whether any of the dried food wouldn’t scrub off. In a second test, I cooked a few tablespoons of tomato sauce in a ceramic pot (not non-stick) to the point where it was entirely dried onto the surface and even a bit burned on. Relying only on elbow grease and no added dish soaps, I scoured the pots to see how well the sponges removed the dried sauce.
In addition, I cleaned my stove top and bathroom sinks and counters with the sponges just to gauge their effectiveness there.
So, are these natural sponges effective?
The answer here is: It depends what you’re cleaning. In our tests, the two most environmentally friendly options, the natural sponge and the Blueland scrubber, were the least effective when it came to scrubbing burned-on food off of our cookware. Blueland did a great job cleaning our bathroom and ridding our kitchen counters of dried-on food, and the natural sponge proved not to be ideal for most kitchen uses.
The Public Goods scrubber sponge and the Grove Collaborative scrubber sponge worked almost identically when it came to cleaning the counter and stove top, removing soiled, stained bits easily, but the Grove scrubber performed head and shoulders above all the rest when it came to scrubbing off dried food.
Alas, as we mentioned before, it feels like a bit of a cheat knowing the Grove scrubber sponge also contains plastic.
The quick and dirty on the natural sponge
The yellow sponge we tried was nowhere near as abrasive as a scouring pad, and while this one did a fine job wiping down the bathroom counter, it couldn’t remove all the dried tomato sauce from the kitchen countertop. I ultimately had to seek out some extra scraping help on my sauce-crusted pot using my Lodge cast-iron skillet scraper set, something we use regularly at home for every kind of dish-washing mess, not just cast-iron.
I also found that the natural sponge holds a massive volume of water, so if you’re using one to wipe down surfaces, you’ll need to wring it out well to avoid pools of water on your counter. Lastly, its soft texture makes it ideal for, say, washing the car or using it in the place of a plastic shower puff, but, as we discovered, not for scrubbing hard-to-remove food.
The quick and dirty on the Blueland scrub sponge
Blueland deserves a lot of credit for trying to be completely plastic-free, from its packaging and shipping materials to its products—it was the only company who did not use any plastic whatsoever in any component of my order.
Blueland puts the same amount of thought into its products, using only compostable cotton thread to affix the rough loofah scrubber to the softer, cellulose sponge. Unfortunately, loofah is a fairly rigid material even when wet, and we found it harder to scrub out small cracks and crevices for a thorough clean, and yet the loofah fibers were not hard enough to remove all the dried-on tomato sauce from our pot.
While I would not recommend the Blueland scrubber for avid or messy home cooks who might have a lot of food or burnt-on bits of food in their lives, I found it perfectly sufficient for cleaning countertops and the dried toothbrush in my bathroom sink, and I’d recommend it as an acceptable choice for jobs that require light scrubbing.
The quick and dirty on the Public Goods and Grove Collaborative scrubber sponges
These two sponges broke my heart a little bit when I learned that they contained plastic, because they worked really well.
On their websites, neither company acknowledges the plastic content of the products. Grove states that its sponge ingredients include “recycled fibers,” while Public Goods only states cellulose and “walnut-based scrubbing abrasive” as its ingredients.
On the plus side, if you’re trying to avoid the antimicrobial chemical triclosan, neither of these feature it as an ingredient, as many sponges do. And, technically, the soft cellulose portion of each sponge can be torn off and composted, though you’re still left with a plastic scrubber that’s landfill-bound.
While Grove does aim to be 100% plastic-free by the year 2025, and it does offer several plastic-free alternatives to many other household items, as of now, we can’t fully endorse its scrub sponge as one of them. As for Public Goods, many of its other products are made with plant-based plastic alternatives, and we hope one day that their sponges will too.
Here’s how these natural sponges compared to traditional cleaning tools
The majority of our tests compared how these cleaning sponges performed against one another, but the bigger question remains: How do they compare to my traditional method of dish-washing, a plastic scrub brush?
I was able to test this one night when, by coincidence, I happened to burn tomato sauce (pretty badly) in my pot, and decided to compare the sponges to the effectiveness of my stand-by dishwashing workhorse, a Full Circle dish brush.
As an aside, this was not an entirely fair comparison, because my pot was so badly burned it was basically a prop from Backdraft. My brush couldn’t handle it and was nearly destroyed in the process of scrubbing it.
But, you know what did scrub all the blackened bits off, even after we scrubbed it with both the Full Circle brush and the Grove sponge? My Lodge cast-iron skillet scraper.
My pot, a vintage Nouveau 1.5 quart saucepan, made of white ceramic, did sustain a few dark scratches from five vigorous scrubbing tests, but it should be said that in spite of all that, the scraper managed to remove any food bits that remained after being intentionally burned four times (and unintentionally burned a fifth time).
If I were to make one recommendation above all others for those of you trying to be eco-friendly, it would be to seek out a fully-compostable sponge, either from Blueland or elsewhere. (If you look elsewhere, it may take some effort and even some communication with the company to confirm the materials they use.) And, to keep a scraper tool on hand which, despite being plastic, is infinitely washable and reusable, and will salvage everything from your fingernails to your favorite pot with its scrubbing power.
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