Ditch the water weight

Are climate claims made by just-add-water cleaners for real—or totally diluted?

There’s a scene in Back to the Future: Part II that’s run through my head since I was a kid. The Future McFlys are gathered around the table, when Grandma Lorraine tears open a foil packet containing a pizza about the size of a coaster and slides the disc into a kitchen appliance. “Hydrate level 4, please,” she squawks at the contraption, and, seconds later, ding! a full-sized pie is ready. 

Did it look good? Absolutely not. (Maybe any pizza really isn’t really better than no pizza?) But a mouthful of primed taste buds isn’t why that moment stuck with me.  

I was entranced by the idea of turning something doll-sized into something full-sized. Just add water. For the McFlys, this was just part of their ultra-convenient world—an evolution of the TV dinner. What’s struck me as an adult, though, is that this is also a more planet-friendly way to buy stuff. 

Dehydrated products are lighter, which means it takes less energy (i.e. fuel) to move them through the supply chain. Maybe that eco-bent was intentional? Consider that Doc Brown’s upgraded time machine ran on literal garbage instead of plutonium, and it starts to feel at least a little like it.

In 2023—ahem, 8 years after the world BTTF2 envisioned—we’re pretty used to rehydrating things in the kitchen. Hell, even when the film debuted we were there already. Dried beans. Evaporated milk. Instant coffee. Coffee-mate, if that’s your thing. (No judgment.) And drying out seasonal ingredients to reap their flavor and nutritional benefits happens all over the world; some Indian cooking, for instance, taps a dried mango powder called amchoor for kicks of tangy sweetness. (Can recommend.)

Outside the pantry, things have been lower on the uptake. But it’s a decent place to look at shedding some weight: Scan the ingredient list on a bottle of bathroom cleaner, Windex, what-have-you, and without-fail H2O is at the top of the list.

A stockpile of cleaning supplies. Made using the Dall-E Image Generator

Only in the last decade or so have manufacturers of cleaning and personal care products really dug into going dry. And, as I near the end of my own pandemic-sized stockpile of cleaning supplies, I’ve started to look into making the switch. Does distilling all these goods down to only the active ingredients for their journey to your sink or shower make a dent? Are all concentrates created equal? Call your scrub-loving friends and roll up your sleeves, this one’s gonna get messy.

The main bit of marketing copy you’ll see for mega-concentrated products is that they eliminate or minimize the need for single-use plastics. Good, great, very into that. But it’s only part of the picture. Transportation alone accounts for 29 percent of a single-use water bottle’s carbon cloud—second only to the production of the vessel itself [PDF]. Breaking: Water is heavy, more than eight pounds per gallon. 

A real back-breaker

Let’s agree that the case of Sustainability v. Single-Use Bottles is duly and truly settled, and focus on the beating heart of what’s stashed under our sinks: active ingredients. Your typical bottle of multi-surface cleaner contains a soapy ingredient known as a surfactant, which is what physically loosens and traps crud, and a water softener, which helps that soapy stuff get all bubbly. (If you’ve ever had trouble lathering up in the shower, hard water is a prime suspect.) There can be other things in there like smells, disinfectants, and preservatives, but those two are the stars of the show.

The vast (vast vast vast) majority of what you’re getting is water. How much, you ask? Oh my, it’s math o’clock already: 

A packet of powdered multipurpose concentrate from the brand Cleanery, for example, contains 0.63 ounces of ingredients. Sixteen-ish fluid ounces of water weighs 17.64 ounces. That means more than 96 percent of the weight of the finished cleaner is H2O. Throw in, say, 2.4 ounces for a spray bottle, and it’s still 85 percent aqua by weight. 

I did some quick measuring to see how well the ratio holds up. As I’ve yet to pull the trigger on a powdered cleaning regimen, I worked with an imperfect-equivalent I had handy: a packet of Emergen-c. The sachet of Super Orange vitamins on its own weighs 0.38 ounces, the 4 fluid ounces de l‘eau it calls for clocks in at 4.17 weight ounces, and a 4-ounce bottle adds another 0.8 ounces. Seventy-eight percent water. 

If we only look at housekeeping, it’s safe to assume a given household has 8 things on hand: glass cleaner, bathroom cleaner, kitchen cleaner, dishwasher detergent, dish soap, laundry detergent, and some kind of multi-surface situation for wiping down bookshelves and whatnot. Powdered versions of both detergents are readily available, so we’ll knock that down to 6 liquid solutions per home. If a family cleans semi-often-but-not-a-ton and replaces each bottle every two months, that’s 36 bottles a year. 

If a bottle of cleaner is a pound (it’s probably more, TBH) and somewhere around 80 percent of that is water weight, then we’re needlessly schlepping about 28.8 pounds of water per home a year. 

So, what does it take to slosh all that excess baggage to and fro? The majority of shipping of consumer goods in the U.S. happens by truck, and moving one ton of wares one mile (a “ton-mile” in freight lingo) via 18-wheeler produces 0.4 pounds of CO2. The route from Procter & Gamble’s plant in Talber Station, West Virginia, to, oh, Chicago is about 650 miles. Toting one ton of cleaning spritz—enough to supply around 55 homes with 36 1-pound bottles each—that distance emits 260 pounds of CO2, or 4.7 pounds per household. 

Nix the wet stuff from the load, and the emissions drop by 208 pounds, or 3.8 pounds per household. Get even 1 percent of U.S.’s 131.2 million households on board, and the carbon reduction is the same as taking around 490 cars off the road. Start adding zeros to that 1 percent, and things add up quickly. 

And remember: Those potential gains only account for transporting the goods: Ditching the bottles floats the boat even higher. 

The dirty work

Now, all that great math evaporates faster than a water-balloon splat on blacktop if the products don’t work well, and I’m on a mission to find my new go-to. As I evaluate my next wave of cleaning purchases (this is adulthood, huh?), I’m winnowing the field based on a few factors. 

But, before we get into that, a PSA: A lotta (lotta) these companies will try and sell you a bottle. Don’t buy it. All except one system I looked into will work in whatever empty Glass Plus or Mrs. Meyers sprayer you’ve got. 

  • Ingredients. Every product I looked at avoids the Big Baddies of the cleaning world: nitrogen, ammonia, and phosphorus. Known as volatile organic compounds, these chemicals are not only murder on indoor air quality, but they don’t get filtered out in the normal wastewater treatment process, which means they seep into waterways and throw marine ecosystems out of whack. The choice here is between naturally derived versus synthetic ingredients—or a mix of the two. 

  • Form Factor

    • Liquid. In these, the only real difference from the OG is how much water is in the container. In some cases—like this pod-based delivery system from JAWS—it’s a few ounces. In others, it’s just a wee envelope of goo.

    • Tablet. Dissolvable tablets like these popular ones from Blueland consist of powdered ingredients compressed into Tums-like rounds that break down in H2O. Because the tabs need to hold together, they may include additional ingredients called binders, which could impact potency.

    • Powder. We like powders. For the most part, these are almost entirely active ingredients; though some, like these sachets from Spruce do contain preservatives, too. These sugar packets full of cleaning dust, sadly, are harder to find in the States than in the U.K. or the E.U. 

  • Packaging: The closer to a brown paper bag, the better. Completely dry products have an edge here, because they won’t leak through paper. Blueland’s refills, for example, come in envelopes. etee offers a clever workaround: a compostable beeswax tube. If you don’t mind measuring, there are also options that come in big bottles or bladders, which eliminates most-but-not-all plastic. 

  • Refills per re-up: Remember, our goal here is to minimize shipping, which means the number of refills companies sell in one go is important. Of course, you can always bulk order to cut down on exterior packaging, but it’s good to start from a strong baseline. 

Starting to get confused? Me, too. Let’s look at a chart: 

All the info above is based on what’s provided on company websites; the math on refills (especially on liquids) are our best estimates. Credit: Jason Reed for one5c

Phew, okay. This helps narrow things down. Wanting to see what life’s like on the No-Water Wagon, I’m personally going to nix the liquid options. Spruce has to get shipped from the U.K., so that’s out. Blueland’s a bit of an Instagram darling, but the thin layer of aluminum in their packaging means that their composability claims are a little sus’ and that their paper pouches can’t go in the recycling bin. 

On actives alone, Meliora and eco + amour are nearly identical—soap derived from natural oils being the main event. Right now, my gut’s whispering “Meliora,” largely because I dig the level of transparency on their ingredients page, and the idea of measuring with Alka-Seltzer ease is appealing. 

Do you already use one of these products? Or would you have chosen differently? Lemme know! 

In the meantime, I’ll be placing an order, and will let y’all know how it goes. 

Keep up the good work. I’ll try, too.