Clean up your cleaners
So-called natural cleaners are a common sight in stores today. Despite the fact that many of them are not, in fact, much better than the less-natural cleaners they’ve replaced, this change in products demonstrates a genuine shift in the ways in which we think about cleaning. That’s a good thing!
We’re very picky about the cleaning supplies we use in our kitchen and to wash our linens—we don’t want there to be any chance that a rogue chemical makes it way into your meal. We work with a company called Ecologic Solutions to clean our pots, pans, and dishes, and use Tropical Traditions products for just about everything else. While Ecologic Solutions works primarily with businesses, Tropical Traditions is available for home use.
The Environmental Working Group has a great online guide for other home cleaners complete with strict standards and clear, color-coded ratings. Check their site before purchasing your next all-purpose spray. You can also look for specific ingredients on labels. Vague descriptors like “fragrance” and “color” are big no-nos, but you should also keep an eye out for products containing antibacterial compounds, ammonia, 2-butoxyethanol, chlorine bleach, citrus and pine oils, benzalkonium chloride, ingredients with names including “-monium chloride” or triclosan, and “active ingredients” such as ADBAC. Homemade options also work well, and most cleaners can be made using white vinegar, baking soda, lemon juice, fragrance-free soap, and washing soda.
When it comes to our towels and aprons, we turn to our own personal washing machines. While there are plenty of professional linen services in the Bay Area, every single one that we contacted uses bleach in their washing process. Common household bleach is problematic because it is a highly corrosive substance that contains the halogen chlorine. Bleach is highly reactive; when it mixes with other common cleaners like ammonia, it releases highly poisonous chloramine gas. Chlorine is also chemically related to iodine; if it is ingested or absorbed, it can compete with the thyroid’s absorption of this essential trace element.
Instead we use an oxygen-based cleaner to keep our whites sparkling clean. This cleaner is made with sodium percarbonate. It is safe to use at all temperatures and it produces no harmful by-products (only soda ash). When sodium percarbonate is added to water, oxygen bubbles are released, which break the bond between the surface of the fabric and any stains, dirt, or odor.
We’re also talking with Ecologic Solutions about installing a new cleaning and sanitizing system that uses regular tap water and salt to produce both dish soap and sanitizer. Sound crazy? It actually works! The machine combines the salt and the water in an electrolyzing chamber, which adds an electrical current to split the salty brine into hypochlorous acid (the sanitizer) and sodium hydroxide (the detergent), both of which are non-toxic and, surprisingly, 99.9% water. The coolest part about his system is that, once the equipment is installed, there is no need to purchase bottles and tubs of cleaners and sanitizers — it is 100% zero waste!
Nothing passes our attention in the kitchen, including the water we drink and use for cooking. Berkeley tap water is pretty good, but it’s not perfect. That’s why we enlisted the help of David Beeman, aka The Water God. He has set up the very first direct-reuse reverse osmosis water filtration system right here in our kitchen. Not only does it filter out impurities from the city water, but it also adds back a proprietary blend of minerals to the water at an optimal concentration for both flavor and culinary use. Plus, our filter system does it all with absolutely zero waste.
What makes our system special?
Reverse Osmosis: Many of us associate water filtration with cylindrical charcoal filters that spit flecks of black coal into the water. These filters get some things out of the water (like chlorine), but they are far from the ideal filtration system. Instead of these old-school filters, we use reverse osmosis for the water at Mission: Heirloom. Reverse osmosis is a water purification system that uses a special membrane to separate out impurities from tap water. After running through the membrane, the water is filtered through a series of activated carbon filters to remove any remaining contaminants.
Zero Waste: In most reverse osmosis systems, the water that doesn’t pass through the membrane is thrown off as waste. Instead of ditching all of that water down the drain, we mix that excess in with our tap water and then recirculate it back into the reverse osmosis system.
Coconut Shells: We also use organic coconut shell carbon instead of the usual mix of coal and plastic in our filters. These coconut carbon filters are just as effective as the coal-based filter, but they’re 100% biodegradable and free of any plastic-based toxins.
Optimized Minerals: Once the water has been filtered, we always add back minerals (mostly potassium and calcium) into the water. Why? It tastes better. Plus, the water is better for our bodies and it allows us to maximize the extraction of goodies when we make our coffee, tea, and bone broths.
Copper Pipes: Our water is transported via copper pipes. It’s brand new and doesn’t leach chemicals like vinyl chloride into the water like PVC. We have a couple of taps right by the stove to make it easy to bring out delicious water into our cooking pots.
Perfect Water: We had our water tested by some of the wisest minds in the coffee business, and they declared it the most perfect water they’d ever tasted! Their support gives us 3rd party verification for all of these steps that we’ve taken to clean our water supply.
BRINGING OUR WORK INTO YOUR KITCHEN
Our water system is complex and, frankly, pretty expensive. Luckily, you can get clean water even without installing your own reverse osmosis machine. To do so, we recommend investing in a SOMA water filter. Each SOMA system is beautiful and effective. Our friend David Beeman helped design the filter, so you know it’s good. SOMA uses the same coconut shell technology that we do in each of their filters, and their filter has has been gold-certified by the Water Quality Alliance. If you choose to make a purchase with SOMA using this link, you can even get a free filter! (We want to note, however, that while happily recommend SOMA’s product, we receive nothing in return from their company.)
Understanding Reverse Osmosis: In order to fully understand how reverse osmosis purifies water, it is helpful to learn how osmosis works. Osmosis describes the process by which water moves across a semi-permeable cell membrane from solutions containing low concentrations of dissolved particles (solutes) to solutions containing high concentrations of solutes. For example, imagine a cell that is full of super salty water. If that cell is placed in another solution that is contains less salt, water from the outside will move into the cell in order to dilute the water in the cell, just as you would add additional water to a salty soup to make the overall soup less salty. Once the water inside the cell has the same concentration of salt as the water outside the cell, water will stop flowing into the cell. At this point, the cell and the surrounding water have reached osmotic equilibrium.
Given no outside forces, osmosis will always happen when the opportunity presents itself, and it will continue until both solutions are at equal concentration. However, if enough pressure is exerted on the highly concentrated solution, osmosis can be halted and even reversed. We take advantage of this condition in reverse osmosis. In reverse osmosis, tap water or any other contaminated water is pushed at super-high pressure (above 500 psi) through a manufactured semi-permeable membrane. Because this pressure is higher than the osmotic pressure, pure, solute-free water easily rushes through the membrane.
Downsides to Reverse Osmosis: Because so much pressure (and so much water) is required to blast the pure water out of the membrane, reverse osmosis systems waste quite a bit of water. Some systems take as much as 4 or 5 gallons of contaminated water in order to produce 1 gallon of pure water! Another problem that can happen with reverse osmosis is that the filtered solutes can back up on the membrane, forming what is called “scale.” Once these solutes form scale, they can gum up the membrane and degrade the material. Additionally, the completely pure water that results from reverse osmosis isn’t that beneficial, plus it doesn’t taste great. Beverages, bone broths, and soups all benefit from being made using water that isn’t completely pure. The trick is to control what we put back in.
Beneficial Minerals: We worked with David Beeman to optimize the minerals we add to our water. Our mix of (mostly) potassium and calcium is added back to the water at 150 parts per million (ppm). At this concentration, the water tastes better better and its minerals are easier for our bodies to absorb. We’re also adding back minerals at a very specific concentration that is optimal for cooking as well as brewing coffee and tea. For example, when making bone broth, it is best to use water like ours because it leaves room in the water to absorb the minerals, gelatin, and collagen from the bones. Similarly, water for coffee needs to include the right balance of minerals to complement and enhance the flavor of the coffee beans.
Making a Zero-Waste System: The biggest difference between our reverse osmosis system and what you’d normally see at home or in a coffee shop is that ours doesn’t waste anything. Called a direct-reuse system, it collects and recirculates the excess waste water by reincorporating it with the water coming in from the tap, which we use in our washing sinks. Anytime anyone turns on the sink, it dilutes the higher concentrate water, reducing the proportion of total dissolved solids in the mix. Since the high concentrate water is constantly being diluted, it never has a chance to build up enough minerals to form scale on the membrane. Plus, we’re not dumping gallons and gallons of water down the drain!
De-plasticize your storage
At Mission: Heirloom, we’re striving to be a plastic-free facility, but we recognize how prevalent plastics are in our everyday lives. It often feels like an impossible task to completely eliminate plastics from the kitchen, and we recognize that we still reach for a zipper lock bag every once in awhile. There are a few rules you can follow while you transition to a plastic-free lifestyle:
Never heat plastics: the leaching of plastic-based chemicals is accelerated via heat. Keep them far away from the sun, the stove, and the dishwasher.
Don’t use plastic to store acidic foods: Like heat, acids accelerate chemical leaching. Keep your tomato sauce and vinaigrettes in glass!
Pay attention to the recycling symbol: Most plastics come embedded with a recycling symbol and number. Plastics with the numbers 2, 4, and 5 are generally safe to use (following the above rules), and plastics with a number 1 are safe as long as they are not made from recycled plastic and are only used once. See our plastics chart for more details.
Avoid the big three: BPA, Phthalate, and Polystyrene
The big three: BPA, Phthalates, and Polystyrene
BPA (bisphenol A) is a carbon-based synthetic compound frequently found in plastics and in the epoxy resins used to line metal cans. While it is not a plastic itself, BPA is a common ingredient in different types of plastic. Plastic numbers 1 through 6 are unlikely to contain BPA, while type 7 plastics (a miscellaneous catch-all category) often do. Occasionally, flexible PVC (type 3) can contain BPA as well.
BPA is problematic because it is an endocrine disruptor. Endocrine disruptors behave like hormones in the body, binding, activating, and blocking hormone receptors in cells. BPA specifically mimics estrogen, so it is often considered to be more harmful to women than men. However, since both women and men have at least some amount of estrogen in their bodies, it is important that both avoid BPA-containing products. The harm associated with BPA is not related to immediate acute toxicity; rather, the concern is based on most Americans’ continuous low-level exposure. This level of exposure has been associated with obesity, neurological effects, impaired thyroid function, and it could increase the risk of asthma, heart disease, and cancer.
BPA is especially likely to leach from plastics and epoxies when subjected to harsh detergents, highly acidic foods, or high temperature liquids. The EPA has set a “safe exposure” limit of 50 µg/kg/day, but it is hard to know how much BPA has leached out of different products. According to a 2009 study, there were some cans (even those that claimed not to contain BPA) that had a content level higher than the safe exposure limit.
Because of consumer concern regarding BPA, many manufacturers have started producing BPA-free versions of their products. However, it is unknown whether BPA substitutes like BPS are actually any safer to use. In fact, a 2011 study discovered many different endocrine disruptors in BPA-free plastics.
Phthalates: Phthalate is a catch-all name for different types of phthalic acid used as plasticizers. Plasticizers are substances commonly added to plastics in order to increase their flexibility, transparency, durability, and longevity. In the kitchen, phthalates are most often found in number 3 (PVC) plastics, which include food wraps, cooking oil bottles, and plumbing pipes. However, phthalates are widely used in many different applications, from shower curtains and the glue used to make particle board to even personal care products like moisturizers.
The biggest problem with phthalates is that they do not chemically bind to plastics. Instead, they are physically bound to the plastic structure and are therefore easily released into the environment. We are exposed to phthalates through both direct use and via chemical leaching into the environment, food, or atmosphere.
Phthalates are suspected to be endocrine disruptors just like BPA, and long-term low-level exposure to these substances can lead to an increased risk for breast cancer, obesity, liver and testes damage, allergies, diabetes, low birth weight, and even ADHD.
Polystyrene: Polystyrene (plastic #6) is most frequently known as Styrofoam, but it is found in far more objects than packing peanuts. It is a synthetic polymer that can be used in a rigid or foamed form. Polystyrene is used in protective packaging (packing peanuts, CD, DVD cases), clamshell containers, lids, bottles, trays, tumblers, disposable cutlery, styrofoam, and napalm-B.
Unlike BPA and phthalate-containing plastics, polystyrene is chemically inert and can only be broken down by dissolving it in powerful chemical solvents. Because of this property, however, polystyrene takes a very, very long time to biodegrade. It is one of the largest sources of litter across the globe. In addition, extruded polystyrene is made by using hydrofluorocarbons, which have global warming potentials of around 1000-1300 times that of carbon dioxide.
Recycled plastic problems:
Recycled plastics sound like a great idea because they prevent additional plastics from entering the landfill. But they’re not particularly safe for us to use. Why? Plastics must be subjected to heat in order to make them into a new product. Heat increases the likelihood that any unsavory chemicals in the plastic could leach out into the environment and your food. In addition, the recycling process is not always perfect, and safe plastics can be cross-contaminated with less-safe compounds.Take a look at the different types of plastics in more detail on our plastic breakdown chart.
Unglue your cutting boards: Cutting boards are an important part of any cook’s kitchen, but they can be tricky. At Mission: Heirloom, we use homemade cutting boards made from a single piece of wood. Why homemade? We wanted to make sure that we were working on boards that are 100% free of formaldehyde-based wood glue, mineral oil, and antibacterial triclosan. These three ingredients aren’t always found in cutting boards, but they are often not disclosed.
There are many reasons to avoid these three ingredients:
Ingredient Problematic Properties
formaldehyde-based wood glue
Found in urea-formaldehyde resin or phenol formaldehyde resin, and most frequently used to make imported bamboo cutting boards. If not cured properly, these glues can release formaldehyde, which can cause eye, nose, and throat irritation; wheezing and coughing; fatigue; skin rash; and severe allergic reactions.
They consist of a variety of colorless, odorless, light oils made from a non-vegetable source, most often a by-product of petroleum manufacturing. Untreated or mildly treated mineral oils have been classified by the World Health Organization as highly carcinogenic to humans. Highly refined oils (most often used in cutting board care) are are not suspected to be carcinogenic, but available information is not sufficient to classify them as harmless. There is evidence that mineral oil can impede the absorption of fat soluble vitamins A (and precursors), D, E, K and essential fatty acids. Food grade mineral oil is not approved in food products in the European Union, and incidental amounts in foods are carefully regulated. We should be doing the same.
This chemical is an antibacterial and antifungal agent often used in plastic cutting boards and other plastic kitchen utensils, in addition to soaps, detergents, and toys. Frequent use can lead to: allergies, hay fever, lowered thyroid hormones and testosterone, and impaired cardiac contraction/function. In addition, its use may lead to the production of harmful antibiotic-resistant bacteria. There are also environmental concerns (it is toxic to aquatic bacteria), and it produces toxic byproducts when it reacts with chlorine in tap water.