When consciously cutting down on plastics and making more Earth-friendly choices, it’s important to analyze even the small things. Plastics have a way of sneaking into even the most benign-sounding items. Sponges, for example, are named after an animal, but most of our cleaning sponges are actually made up of plastics.
Luckily there are a number of new–as well as very, very old–options that are just as good at cleaning and infinitely better for the environment than typical plastic-based sponges. In this guide, we’ll go over the factors you should look for when choosing an eco-friendly sponge. At the end, we’ve also got a list of our 10 favorites to help you get started.
How to Choose an Eco-Friendly Sponge – Buying Guide
Eco-friendly or not, sponges vary in texture, size, and durability to meet specific cleaning needs, so be sure to keep in mind your own situation when picking out a sponge.
Pick a Material Based on Toughness and Disposal
The material your eco-friendly sponge is made from is going to be what determines the most important aspects of your sponge–how hard it scrubs, how long it lasts, and how Earth-friendly disposal will be.
Cellulose Sponges Are Soft, Readily Available, and Familiar
As it stands, a lot of normally available commercial sponges are made from cellulose and hemp fiber, plant-based materials that will naturally biodegrade over time. These are your typical kitchen sponges with the larger, more irregular holes.
The ones with tiny holes are probably made from polyurethane. However, generic cellulose sponges sometimes also include polyester, which is a form of plastic. So to ensure that you’re getting unadulterated plant materials, be sure to read the label.
These sponges are soft and great for surface cleaning and dishwashing, although they don’t have a lot of hard scrubbing power and tend to have a shorter lifespan—if you’re using them in the kitchen, you really shouldn’t use one for more than a couple weeks before switching it out.
Loofahs are Mildly Abrasive and Compostable
Loofahs are plants that are closely related to cucumbers. To create that spongey texture, they’re dried out and essentially left to become plant skeletons.
Loofahs are mildly abrasive and make great cleaning sponges in the place of green scouring pads or mild steel wool. They’re also gentle enough to use for body exfoliation in the shower. If you get a whole loofah, you can just cut it into smaller pieces and use it as you need it.
As long as you let it dry out properly between uses, each piece will last about three months before it starts to break down, at which point you can feel free to just toss it into your compost pile.
Sea Sponges Are Super Absorbent, Gentle, and Last for Years
Humans have been using sea sponges to clean for millennia. In fact, the word “sponge” comes from the animal. While they aren’t exactly vegan, sea sponges are sustainably harvested from aquatic farms in a way that allows the organism to keep growing and has little negative environmental impact.
They’re super soft and extremely absorbent—one sponge can hold an entire cup of water—which makes them great for cleaning up countertop messes or even washing your car. Naturally, they are compostable and biodegradable, but you won’t have to worry about that for a while as they can last several years of use.
Silicone Sponges Are Durable and Recyclable
For something a little different, why not try a silicone sponge? They’re gentle but can also be used as scouring pads depending on how the silicone is shaped. They’re also naturally bacteria-resistant and can withstand years of use, so you don’t need to worry about them breaking down and entering the waterways.
When you are ready to get rid of it, just look for a recycler that accepts silicone.
For Caked-on Messes, Look for an Attached Scouring Pad Made of Plant-Based Fibers
Conventional scouring pads are great for scrubbing off tough messes, but they’re usually made from plastic, which breaks down as you use it and slips down the drain.
Fortunately, there are some plant-based scourers that do the job just as well without contributing to microplastic pollution. So if you’re looking for a sponge that’s also got a little grit to help you clean, look for sponges with scouring pads made from materials like coconut husks or walnut shells.
Pick the Right Size Sponge for the Job
Just because a sponge is eco-friendly doesn’t automatically make it the best sponge for you–you need to think about what you’re scrubbing too! So just remember that if you’re looking for a sponge to clean the bathtub, you’ll probably want it to be on the larger side.
Conversely, if you find yourself cleaning a lot of cups, for example, a smaller sponge will fit more easily and allow you to clean more thoroughly. Luckily, a lot of eco-friendly sponges–loofahs and cellulose sponges in particular–cut down very easily and can be used in a wide variety of spaces.
Ensure Your Sponge Is Antibacterial-Free
Sponges are moist and full of holes–the perfect breeding ground for bacteria. Which is why many conventional sponges are treated with antibacterial chemicals. And while they kind of work to keep your cleaning device clean, they’re also harmful to the environment, particularly marine life. So to avoid any of these unwanted chemicals, be sure to check that your sponge is untreated.
Top 10 Best Eco-Friendly Sponges to Buy Online
Now that you know what to look for, here are our 10 favorites to help you get a feel for some options.
10. Teal Trunk Silicone Sponge and Scrubber (2 Pack)
Gentle Silicone Scrubber with Two Surfaces
These silicone sponges are great for scrubbing almost any surface. They feature two different scrubbing surfaces–one with bristles that’s more gentle and one with ridges that’s got a little more scrubbing power to it.
They are made completely from silicone and don’t pick up any stains, odors, or bacteria, but they also don’t hold soap very well, so if you do get them, you’ll likely find that you’re using a bit more soap than you’re used to.
|Size||3.1″ x 4.7″|
9. STK Heavy Duty Silicone Scrubber Sponges (10 Pack)
Heat-Resistant, Odor-Free Sponges
These silicone sponges have a similar shape and texture to normal sponges but don’t soak up water or grime, so you never have to worry about gross smells or bacteria building up. They’re heat resistant, so feel free to boil them if you want to be extra clean.
Just note that because they’re silicone and not absorbent at all, they don’t make very good wiping sponges and are better for scrubbing. Additionally, though they do a good job cleaning, you won’t get that squeaky clean feel of a more absorbent sponge.
|Size||3″ x 4.25″|
8. Scotch-Brite Greener Clean Natural Fiber Non-Scratch Scrub Sponge (12 Pack)
Made from Recycled Paper and Agave
This is basically your normal sponge-scouring pad combo, but better. The sponge side is made from cellulose fiber including 25% recycled paper. The scouring side is tough but non-scratch and made 50% from agave.
However, the other 50% of the scouring pad is polyester, so it isn’t biodegradable and not compostable. But it’s still a better alternative to a 100% polyester scrubber, so this is good if you’re looking to do better without giving up on what you’re used to.
|Size||3.7″ x 4.3″|
7. The Natural Sea Sponge
Rougher Sea Sponge Great for Household Cleaning
Unlike most sea sponges, this sponge is slightly darker in color and noticeably rougher in texture. It’s great for all sorts of tougher cleaning or even occasional skin exfoliation. It can easily be cut to a smaller size and will last for over a year with proper care.
It takes a while to soften up, so let it soak for up to an hour before using it the first time. It creates a fantastic lather for those who like to see their suds at work. However, it may have a slightly ocean-y smell straight out of the package.
|Main materials||Sea sponge|
6. Trader Joe’s Pop up Sponges (12 Pack)
A Simple, All-Plant Sponge
You’d never guess this was a 12-pack of sponges. These sponges come extremely flat and puff up in water, so you know they’re super absorbent. On top of that, they are relatively durable and resistant to odors.
However, they are still made from just cellulose, so you’ll naturally have to deal with them breaking down more quickly than other materials. It also does not do much in terms of messes that require hard scrubbing.
|Size||3.25″ x 4.25″|
5. Kolo Nature Zero Waste Unsponges (3 Pack)
100% Recycled, Compostable Plant-Based “Unsponge”
This “unsponge” is about as eco-friendly as you get. It’s made only from recycled cotton and jute, and it’s machine washable and will last up to four months of heavy use.
Though it may take some getting used to–it feels quite a bit smaller in your hand–it cleans just as well, if not better than a normal sponge. The jute scrubbing side is gentle but effective and rinses off cleanly, which makes it perfect for cast iron.
|Main materials||Cotton, jute|
|Size||4″ x 4.5″|
4. Lather Natural Sea Wool Sponge
Super Soft, All-Natural Sponge
This sea sponge is soft and gentle–perfect for washing your car or nonstick cookware. It is unbleached and untreated, so you don’t have to worry about any chemicals.
It has slight ocean-y scent and is kept as natural as possible. This means that there may be variation in both color and size from one order to another.
|Main materials||Sea sponge|
3. Twist Loofah Sponge
Hand-Stitched Two-Sided Sponge
This two-sided sponge is made from cellulose fiber with a loofah scrubber and contains no dyes or glues. Instead, the two parts are hand-stitched together. It scrubs and scours better than a polyester scrubber and is compostable.
However, this sponge tends to break down rather quickly, and you’ll likely have to replace it in less than a month. And at over $6 per sponge, that may not be worth the eco-friendly benefits.
|Main materials||Cellulose, loofah|
|Size||2.8″ x 4.3″|
2. Miw Piw Whole Natural Loofah (3 Pack)
Three All-Natural, Organic Loofahs
These are just three whole, organic, sustainably farmed loofahs. They are fully compostable and even arrive in paper packaging free of plastics. They can easily be cut to any size and can be used for basically any cleaning purposes.
They’re soft enough to use on your skin but scrubby enough to wash the dishes with. They retain a lot of water but dry out quickly, so you don’t have to worry much about bacterial growth.
1. Pura Naturals Stink Free Sponge (6 Pack)
Plant-Based and Designed to Inhibit Bacteria
This set of sponges is made without any plastics or chemicals in a factory so non-toxic that it doesn’t require protective gear. They’re designed to grab onto oil and grime and repel water, which inhibits bacteria growth and prevents odors.
They’re a bit on the stiffer side, which might make them better for cleaning surfaces like counters and bathrooms rather than dishes. They also come in two shapes, including a leaf shape that makes it easy to get into smaller spaces.
|Main materials||Cellulose, walnut|
|Size||3.5″ x 4″ and 3.5″ x 5″|
How to Clean Your Sponge
Since you’re looking for a sponge that isn’t antibacterial, you have to know how to keep it clean. A lot of us have learned that microwaving a sponge will kill the bacteria, and that’s true–mostly.
In fact, microwaving your sponge does kill all the weaker bacteria, but it also leaves behind the stronger, more dangerous ones and gives them more opportunity to grow. Dishwashing and tossing them in the washing machine with your laundry can do the same. So what’s the best way to avoid spreading germs around your house?
Make sure your sponge has an opportunity to dry as thoroughly and as quickly as possible. Don’t try to stretch the life of your sponge too long–if it’s starting to smell funny or looks a little ratty, it’s time to retire it. For some cellulose sponges, this could mean as often as every week if you use it for dishwashing.
If you’re reluctant to throw it away too quickly, rotate it to a part of the house where using an old sponge isn’t going to do any harm. Say, using an old dish sponge to clean the bathtub, for example.
Sponges are something that you use every day and can go through pretty quickly. So even though changing your sponge may seem like a small step, it can really add up, especially if it means switching from one that’s completely plastic to one that’s fully biodegradable or recyclable.
By Jacqueline Oshiro
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