“It’s not too hard, once you jump on board, to realize everything you flush down the sink ends up in the ocean,” says Lauren Wardley, owner of Ethical Yacht Wear and a freelance stewardess.
Like many crew, Wardley loves the ocean and wants to protect it. The veteran stew not only started a sustainable uniform company but, when on board, does her best to ensure the cleaning products
While Wardley is happy to dig deep into research on companies and ingredients, most crew don’t have the time or knowledge to figure out whether or not a cleaning product is damaging the environment. The cleaning industry certainly doesn’t make it easy. Even when crew think they’re doing right by the environment, they may not be, thanks to greenwashing, a marketing technique in which brands deceptively tout their eco-friendly cred while actually using ingredients that can be harmful to humans and the environment. That lack of trust and confusion has produced major barriers to purchasing sustainable brands. More than four out of five consumers feel misled by sustainability buzzwords.
“There is a lot of greenwashing out there, which can be a challenge to filter through,” says Gemma Harris, former chief stew and founder of Seastainable Yachting. “Just because something states it is ‘eco-friendly’ doesn’t necessarily mean it is — you have to acknowledge the whole chain of that product from what goes in it, through it, [and] where and how it was shipped to you,” she says. Harris created Seastainable Yachting because she “recognized that although sustainability within the industry is a huge task and somewhat a big challenge, every individual can make a difference.” While there are many technological, design, and build changes occurring, the operational side may be neglected. “I found myself making small changes pretty easily and felt that other crew could do the same, creating a domino effect throughout the industry,” she says.
Decoding Labels and Terminology
“More crew are receptive to making changes as they are beginning to see firsthand the implications that not being sustainable can have,” Harris says. “I think there can be a lot of kickback from owners still in terms of switching products, but hopefully this will change as younger and more environmentally conscious owners are buying into the industry.”
Packaging can offer clues as to whether or not a product contains deleterious ingredients. Any product that says “caution,” “warning,” “danger,” “poison,” or “harmful to aquatic life with long-lasting effects” is, in fact, going to be harmful to aquatic life.
Eco-labels can be a good tool to help consumers identify products that are greener; however, the industry is full of vague or generic claims that don’t actually mean anything.
“Natural” or “all natural,” for instance, suggests that a product only includes ingredients found in nature, but it doesn’t indicate anything regarding toxicity. (Plenty of toxic chemicals are naturally produced; ever hear of arsenic or mercury?)
Eco-labels can be a good tool to help consumers identify products that are greener.
A good one is the chemical methylisothiazolinone, a preservative that can be derived from plant sources and is used in liquid cosmetics, personal care, and cleaning products, including green products such as Method dish soap and Seventh Generation Natural 4X Laundry Detergent. The chemical inhibits the growth of bacteria but “it’s highly toxic to freshwater and marine organisms,” says Lily Cameron, a domestic cleaning expert at Fantastic Services. “Only one of the two compounds that make up the chemical can degrade in water and only in specific conditions. It can persist in the environment, the consequences of which haven’t been assessed yet.”
EPA Safer Choice is another green certification that may not mean as much as consumers would like to think. The label indicates that a product meets the agency’s standards for product safety and implies said product’s ingredients aren’t known carcinogens or toxic to aquatic life. But the aforementioned Method dish soap has earned the EPA’s Safer Choice label — and it does contain ingredients that can harm marine species, just in lower levels.
“Plant-based” is another buzzword that sounds great but has been co-opted by companies to sound greener. It implies a molecule, compound, or material is extracted from plants, but that doesn’t mean that the product isn’t further modified with a synthetic molecule.
“Many of these ‘green’ companies are more concerned about human toxicity than aquatic toxicity,” says Samantha Radford, PhD, founder of Evidence-Based Mommy. “And if they can claim that an ingredient is plant derived, that also sounds good for them. With that said, some of the ingredients, like methylisothiazolinone, are highly toxic to human life and aquatic life, and it’s synthetic. I really have no answer for why they’re used in these products other than that alternative ingredients are more expensive.”
And, while there are plenty of plant-based chemicals that do degrade in the ocean, many pose their own unique environmental issues. For example, palm oil is often used to produce sodium lauryl sulfate, a foaming agent used in soaps and cleaning products. While there are some sustainable sources of palm oil available — although there’s debate whether or not it’s been enforced properly — its production is a leading cause of deforestation and loss of biodiversity, as well as one of the driving forces behind orangutan extinction.
“I found myself making small changes pretty easily and felt that other crew could do the same, creating a domino effect throughout the industry,” Former Chief Stew Gemma Harris says.
Furthermore, some of the laundry detergents — one of the biggest products of concern for aquatic life — recommended by the Environmental Working Group use soapbark extract. Harvested from the rare Chilean Quillay tree, it is a surfactant (compounds that lower the surface tension between two liquids that act as detergents, wetting agents, emulsifiers, foaming agents, or dispersants) considered safe for human life and aquatic life. “Indigenous peoples have been harvesting soapbark extract for a long time, but if soapbark extract becomes more popular, we’ll be damaging these environments and taking away these people’s access to this ingredient,” says Radford.
“Non-toxic” is another term that’s not regulated. It indicates that the product has not been linked to any adverse health; however, anyone can use it whether that’s true or not. The only labels that actually mean anything on cleaning products are stamped with third-party seals or certifications.
The term “organic” is not regulated, but the USDA “Certified Organic” seal indicates that products bearing the label have met certain standards, such as never using GMOs and avoiding synthetic fertilizers. The agency also offers a seal for “Certified Biobased” products that provide an alternative to conventional petroleum-derived products. The label indicates what percent of the product is biobased, according to results from the USDA and American Society for Testing and Materials. For example, Mrs. Meyer’s dish soap says that’s 88 percent, Everspring dish soap is 97 percent biobased, and Seventh Generation’s EasyDose Ultra Concentrated Laundry Detergent is 99 percent. Biobased products reduce our reliance on petroleum-based products, in turn lowering our need for fossil fuels.
Green Seal is a nonprofit organization that certifies products for its entire life cycle, from raw material extraction to disposal, for its “ecolabel.” ECOLOGO Certified products is another third-party certification that have reduced environmental impact in at least some, if not all, “materials, energy, manufacturing and operations, health and environment, product performance and use, and product stewardship and innovation.”
The label most sustainability and cleaning experts point towards, however, is EcoCert. The internationally recognized certification ensures environmentally safe practices in the product design and creation with very strict guidelines to ensure that all products boasting its brand are good for the environment in every way. “This certification is more stringent than other ‘green’ labels,” says Jessica Samson, director of national branding at maids.com. “Use this as a reference point to find products that are safe for our oceans and environment.”
Look for ingredients and products that are harmful to the ocean. Antibacterials, heavily scented products, and laundry detergents are some of the hardest to buy due to their chemical makeup.
Triclosan is an antibacterial and antifungal agent that’s found in a wide array of antibacterial products. While effective at reducing and preventing bacterial contamination, as well as killing fungi and mildew, it also kills bacteria and algae in waterways. “As this water flows into our oceans, it can really impact the microbiome (the types of bacteria living in the waters), in turn damaging the entire ecosystem,” says Radford. “Triclosan is also an endocrine disruptor, meaning it will affect the hormones and growth of frogs, fish, and other aquatic animals.”
Another class of major (and more sneaky) cleaning products is phthalates, most commonly found in air fresheners; they’re also included in cleaning and laundry products. They’ve been shown to cause reproductive and developmental disruption in humans and are toxic to aquatic organisms including bacteria, algae, crustaceans, insects, and fish. They’ve been detected all over the place — air, drinking water, rivers, and soil — even in rainwater due to their ability to leach from manufactured products.
One of the biggest problems with phthalates? It’s not required to be on the label because the FDA says it can simply be listed as a “fragrance.” To avoid it, it’s important to seek out products that specifically state they are phthalate-free.Phthalates are often used in laundry detergent, but even phthalate-free detergents are prone to damaging marine environments. A whopping 70 percent of American streams have been found to contain laundry-detergent ingredients that seriously harm aquatic life.
Some brands and products are certainly better than others. Tide, Persil, and Gain all received “F” scores on the Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning. Yet even some of the green brands receive shockingly bad scores due to the chemical reactions needed to make these products work. “One of laundry detergent’s main purposes is to act as a surfactant, allowing water and oils/grease to mix so the water can lift stains off of clothes,” says Radford. “Since these surfactants are going to affect aquatic life, and all detergents are going to have some kind of surfactant, it’s hard to find a laundry detergent that’s completely safe for the oceans.”
Finding Clean Products
So, how do you find cleaners? “The first step is to ask yourself ‘Do I really need that cleaning product?’” says Cameron. White vinegar, baking soda, alcohol, and hydrogen peroxide can be used to create cleaning supplies safe for the oceans. While you don’t want to use vinegar on natural stone or wood as it will damage the surface, it can be used to replace almost any household cleaner. “Vinegar is made from acetic acid, so this makes it a great disinfectant for many germs,” says Samson. “It is very effective at cleaning because its acid will break down grease, grime, and dirt very quickly.” This, along with alcohol, is Harris’s go-to on board.
Baking soda can also be used to break down tough grease, grime, and dirt. It’s a great alternative to the highly toxic commercial oven cleaners. And hydrogen peroxide can be used to disinfectant tough-to-reach places, like the inside of a dishwasher or washing machine, remove protein- and plant-based stains from fabrics, including mildew, blood, fruit and vegetable, and dye-transfer stains.
For times when a commercial cleaning product is needed, look for the third-parties seals mentioned and do some research. The Environmental Working Group is a good source on product safety.
Chances are, however, that yachts require fewer toxic cleaners than a typical home environment since the crew diligently maintain them to a high standard. “They’re always clean because someone is always cleaning them,” says Wardley. “I honestly think less is more.”
Check out all these crew who are working hard to make a difference and be sure to take in their advice to incorporate on your vessel.
Stewardess Gemma Harris created Seastainable Yachting to help interior crew find better, more eco-friendly products to use. Her site offers resources to crew, with downloadable materials and infographics that help make good substitutions for common products. www.seastainableyachting.com
Chief Stewardess Kiyra Rathbone created The Green Stewardess as a resource for crew looking for sustainable solutions on board. Rathbone sources, researches, and tests greener products and now has a sales agency agreement for most of the products she distributes. www.thegreenstewardess.com
Second Stewardess/Masseuse Lauren Ryburn runs The Green Stew on Instagram, where she offers tips and tricks to make the switch to more eco-friendly goods and products aboard, plus various informational and eco news from around the world. @the.green.stew
This article originally ran in the June 2022 issue of Dockwalk.