Bleach is a difficult product to categorize, in terms of whether it is good or bad.
This is because, although it does have a number of harmful qualities, the degree of environmental damage is largely dependent on how it is used and disposed of.
However, overall, as we will consider below, there are a few reasons why bleach is not the most sustainable option on the market.
1. What Is Bleach Made Of?
Bleach is a solution of sodium hypochlorite diluted with water.
According to the Chlorine Institute, sodium hypochlorite is made with two chemicals: Chlorine and sodium hydroxide (also known as caustic soda or lye).
The Occupational Safety and Hazard standards outline that in household applications, the concentration of sodium hypochlorite is usually somewhere between 1-7%.
Conversely, industrial-strength bleach can be in concentrations as strong as 20%.
Due to these uses, bleach primarily ends up going down the drain, where it will end up in the sewer system or a waste treatment facility.
Since bleach is highly reactive in water, it will begin to oxidize – meaning it gets converted to organic chloride compounds.
By the time it reaches a treatment center, this reaction will be close to complete.
The type of chloride by-products created depends on the pH of the wastewater it gets transported in.
But generally, chemistry experts highlight that by the end of the treatment process, less than 1% of these compounds will remain.
Although, for industrial bleach waste, this can be up to 10% higher.
2. Is Bleach Eco-Friendly?
No, bleach is not eco-friendly, but the extent of its effect on the environment is largely dependent on the remaining concentration of chloride compounds and where the treated waste gets released.
Once released into the environment, the natural degradation process begins.
Over 90% of the remaining by-products will then be degraded by light exposure, absorption, and water, with a half-life of a few seconds to a few hours.
However, in recent years, bleach use increased significantly.
Due to the pandemic, experts say that chlorine-based bleach usage went up by more than 48%.
As a result, they found:
- Fatal effects on soil and plant life
- The formation of carcinogenic by-products
- Adverse consequences on microorganisms and the ecosystem
Other studies have also suggested that the use of bleach in households can cause a chemical reaction that releases carbon tetrachloride into the air and atmosphere.
Carbon tetrachloride is a banned substance that contributes to ozone depletion.
In the research, they stressed that anywhere between 0.06 to 1230 tons of carbon tetrachloride might be inadvertently released into the atmosphere as a result of bleach use.
3. Is Bleach Toxic?
Bleach, as a substance, is highly toxic. But the risk of toxic exposure is low.
This is because it reacts to the skin and mucous membranes of both humans and animals, causing corrosion upon contact, whether diluted or in concentrate.
However, usually, instances of fatal or dangerous exposure to bleach do not happen when or after it goes through treatment.
The more common occurrences of toxic environmental damage are the result of spills or mishaps during transportation.
Similarly, incidents involving humans mostly come from accidental or intentional exposure.
That said, there have been reports of untreated sewage or drainage water runoff that have led to the contamination of water supplies due to the bleach itself or the byproducts it creates.
But even in such cases, this would still be a repercussion of misuse.
4. Is Bleach Biodegradable?
In its pure form, bleach is not biodegradable because it is an inorganic substance.
An inorganic substance is a chemical compound that has no carbon bonds in its structure.
Scientists explain that for a substance to biodegrade, it must have a source of carbon that microorganisms can break down to use as energy.
On the face of it, bleach does not biodegrade, but it is highly reactive, meaning it can decompose – in the sense that it still gets broken down, just not by living organisms.
Rather, as we discussed, it reacts with water and goes through treatment.
This leaves it in a broken-down form consisting of organic compounds, which can be biodegraded.
In other words, it is biodegradable when it goes through proper use and treatment.
But you couldn’t simply dispose of bleach in a landfill or clean water supply without it causing harm.
5. Is Bleach Sustainable?
Bleach is not considered a sustainable cleaning product, due to its negative impact on the environment and the formation of potentially toxic by-products during the treatment process.
However, this is speaking mostly to its concentrated form.
It could be argued that since the average removal efficiency of bleach and its by-product from the wastewater is usually more than 90%, it is not inconsistent with sustainable goals.
The UN defines sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
If bleach is used properly, then this doesn’t seem to contradict this aim.
However, as we know, this requires real and careful attention to the procedures we employ when working with and remediating the damage bleach can cause.
Given that there were more than 45,500 occurrences of disinfectant and cleaner-related poisonings during 2020, and that the fact more than 600 bleach byproducts were located in various aquatic environments in 2019 – it would suggest that we don’t currently have a system in which bleach could be considered sustainable.
6. Are There Eco-Friendly Alternatives to Bleach?
Yes, there are many eco-friendly alternatives to bleach. For instance:
- White vinegar
- Lemon juice
- Baking soda
- Hydrogen peroxide
- Castile soap
- Citrus essential oils
- Grapefruit seed extract
Of course, with any product intended for cleaning, it’s essential to take the relevant safety measures for use and disposal.
Many products that we consider eco-friendly, much like bleach, can only be called so when we use them how they were intended.
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