It's clean... but is it green?

We all know you can't get your home sparkling and germ-free without harsh chemicals and toxic potions. Or do we? Robert Hanks rethinks all his assumptions after a visit from the eco-cleaners
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The Independent Online

Likewise, we have tried to convert to greener, kinder household products: detergents that don't kill fish, washing powder that doesn't contain toxic levels of bleach. But, in the end, we like white shirts that stay white, rather than pale grey. By "we", incidentally, I mean chiefly, but not exclusively, my wife.

Even I rebelled, though, when it came to eco-friendly washing-up liquid, because I couldn't handle (literally) crockery covered with a fine smear of grease. Eco-friendly hand-wash and dishwasher tablets seem to do the job, more or less, so we stuck with them as a token of our good intentions. But it's a straight choice between saving the planet and busting the grime - well, planet, try not to take it personally, eh? Is the choice as straight as all that, though? Enter Trevor Jones and Sharon Girardi, evangelists for all things clean and green, who together run Vertue, Britain's only natural carpet-cleaning service.

Can they show us how to clean our house without using bleach and detergents? More importantly, can they leave our carpet clean enough to win my wife's approval? Vertue began life as a spin-off from Jones's family business, a cleaning-supplies shop. Jones's interest in environmental issues came out of mountaineering: he began to notice that a lot of the ice-routes described in climbing guides had changed or vanished altogether as the glaciers shrank. He became involved with Greenpeace, on one occasion scaling an industrial chimney in Amsterdam to protest about carbon emissions. Clearly, selling chemical cleaning agents did not chime with his worldview.

Then he became converted to the cleansing power of seaweed, a phenomenon first observed after the break-up of the oil-tanker Torrey Canyon off Land's End in 1967: many of the beaches that weren't cleaned up using powerful and toxic detergents started to get cleaner spontaneously - the seaweed, it turned out, was producing an agent that broke down the oil. Through the family shop, Jones began manufacturing and marketing a range of seaweed-based cleaning products.

Girardi, meanwhile, after a country childhood spent skinning rabbits and plucking pheasants, had trained as a designer of "perma culture" schemes, in which waste is recycled and energy consumption minimised to create something as close as possible to self-sufficiency. When her five-year-old daughter contracted endocrine cancer, dying 18 months later, it sharpened her sense of the dangers of modern industrialised society: as the Vertue publicity material puts it: "It is not acceptable to be part of a giant experiment into what the long-term effects of daily exposure to chemical cocktails will be." She joined Jones in the seaweed products business nearly four years ago.

Unfortunately, as Jones puts it: "We're lousy at selling." They started specialising in carpet-cleaning as a way of making money, but also because carpets are about the most environmentally unfriendly things you will find in the average house. As Jones explained to me, when they came round to have a go at our grimy expanse of sub-Axminster, these days carpets are dressed with some very unpleasant substances before they are laid, so that they look nice, smell nice and feel nice, but are also carcinogenic. Then, they sit there soaking up dirt and pollutants, which are kicked up by cleaning. And most professional carpet-cleaners use fast-acting but extremely harsh chemicals to blast the dirt out of the carpet. Vertue's way is more laborious. They spray their seaweed preparation on the carpet, leaving it to work for 30 minutes, and scrub awkward stains by hand before going in with the usual carpet-cleaning equipment - a machine that blasts water into the carpet then sucks it out.

While the seaweed spray gets to work on our stairs, Girardi starts to take me through the cupboard under our sink. It turns out that we're not doing too badly - Ecover dishwasher tablets and rinse-aid earn us brownie points, and we use a moderately kind washing-powder. But, Sharon wonders, could we get away with using less of it? Most people use more detergent than they need. She is also kind about my wife's beloved stain-remover, which we squirt on to our laundry before every load - having checked the label she pronounces it "not too bad".

But Jones is more suspicious: he asks who makes the stuff, and on being given the name of a well-known multinational says: "Forget it." Labels only have to declare ingredients available after 1981: plenty of nasty stuff was around before. And what's so great about Fairy Liquid? Here, my natural scepticism surfaces: we used the eco-stuff, I point out, and it didn't work. This is where Vertue's seaweed preparation comes in, though: Jones generously offers me a bottle of Sea Spray, which apart from its powers as an all-purpose surface-cleaner works a treat when mixed with detergent. I haven't tested this claim, but it certainly works on the kitchen surfaces, and it has a pleasant, beery smell.

After our B-minus for the cupboard under the sink, though, things go downhill. I feel compelled to show Girardi the cupboard under the stairs, a poisoner's treasure trove with its descalers and stainless steel cleaners and bleaches. Most of this stuff, Girardi says, can be replaced with vinegar and bicarbonate of soda, or citrus-based cleaning agents. This last I know about, having used citrus cleaners on my bike for years with gratifying results, and frankly I never expected to get away with the bleach - though Girardi says it would be all right if it was oxygen-based, rather than chlorine. I'm more surprised by their contempt for my shoe polish. "Chuck all that out," I'm instructed. "Highly toxic, persistent and cumulative." Bang goes the parade-ground gloss I was once so proud of.

Meanwhile, Jones has cleaned the stair carpet, and finishes by asperging it with Colibri, a commercial preparation of essential oils. This, he says, will repel clothes-moths rather than killing them, though after the moth troubles we've had I'm not sure we want to show mercy. Sometimes he uses neem oil, a traditional Indian insect-repellent, popular in this country with organic farmers. And we're done.

So what do I think about all this? Is it really worth abandoning our tried and trusted cleaning methods? For one thing, while Jones and Girardi say scary things about hormone disruptors and carcinogens, I don't have a clear sense of how risky all these chemicals are. Jones's answer is: "There is no safe limit." For some people, one part in a million of some carcinogen will be enough; others will cope with several hundred times that level of exposure. And my wife, as I suspected, is too attached to her whiter-than-white wardrobe to risk eco-friendly but potentially greying alternatives. She is, however, dazzled by our newly cleaned carpet - grey-yellow now returned to a honey colour we'd completely forgotten about. Planet, maybe we can still be friends.

To contact Vertue call 020-8806 0781

Sharon and Trevor's green cleaning tips

* Get a doormat - people walking in off the street import heavy metals, among other nasty things, to join the mix of toxins already floating around in the atmosphere.

* Wear an apron when you're cooking (and when you're eating): fewer stains equals less washing equals a greener life.

* Hoover your carpets regularly. The longer the dirt has to work its way into the weave, the grubbier it gets and the more the fibres are damaged.

* Elbow grease! Scraping and scrubbing may be tiresome, but they are also effective and non-toxic cleaning methods.

* Avoid sprays wherever possible - even though these days they don't contain ozone-depleting CFCs, they fill the air with particles that your lungs don't want to have to cope with.

* Use natural and traditional cleaning materials - white vinegar (which doesn't smell, by the way), bicarbonate of soda for descaling, toothpaste for cleaning jewellery, tea-tree oil to disinfect your lavatory.

* Try getting away with less washing-powder - most people go for overkill.

* Beware of heavily perfumed cleaning products - they are usually masking smells rather than eliminating the dirt, and they are harming your lungs.

* Tap water can be the most effective way of keeping things clean, especially if you soften it with washing soda.

* As Trevor says: "What's wrong with a little dirt, anyway?"