Nasty Kitchen Business & The 52,000-Year Old Kitchen Sponge

Nasty Kitchen Business & The 52,000-Year Old Kitchen Sponge

6 minute read

Like dirty talk? We're not talking about that kind of dirty. We're talking about the gross, grotty, filthy, nasty, putrid, horrifically squalid conditions of your kitchen. That's right, your kitchen. But we're not singling you out, so don't feel bad. Everyone's kitchen has all kinds of unseen interferences with an optimal state of hygiene. They're trespassers in an otherwise perfectly sanitary kitchen.

What are they? Well, for starters, that raunchy piece of polyurethane foam called the kitchen sponge. It's a soggy cesspool that's supposed to clean your dishes and wipe your countertops.

The thing is that most people don't even think about this. Heck, they probably don't even know how disgusting their kitchen cleaning sponge is. Let's take my mother, for instance. She's one of those lovely old-ish British ladies who keeps her kitchen spic n' span. Her potted plants adorn the windowsill like leafy green soldiers, her spices are all lined up, her freshly churned butter stays safe in a proper butter crock, and few dirty dishes linger in the sink, if any, ever.

But there's one thing that does linger in her sink, and each time I visit, I scold her for it everytime as though she were a child who didn't put her toys away. She has a collection of crocheted dish rags that take turns touching everything in her kitchen. They mop up spills, wipe out her teacup, and polish the countertops. The one frontlining the rotation lands in the sink basin after use--splat!--and remains there, unrinsed, unsqueezed, unattended to in all ways possible.

I am considerably loathe to touch the thing, as though it were a living, breathing organism. But if I were brave enough to put that thing under a microscope, I would discover that's precisely what it is--a living, breathing organism. And not just one but entire colonies of them.

So, it's not just the sponges then that are breeding grounds for bacteria. It's these knitted dish rags too. But as we'll discover, sponges are much, much worse, and for more reasons.

What's Wrong With Your Kitchen Sponge

First of all, it's wet, warm, and porous. Bacteria flourish in such a habitat. While you may think that your sponge is doing its job, what's really happening is that all the stuff it's supposedly "cleaning" is actually feeding the colonies of harmful bacteria that live within it. And their colonies grow far and wide.

But there's another reason those sponges are terrible. They're made with essentially the same stuff that was accidentally engineered back in the 1930s. You may recall from history texts that that time period was not a particularly environmentally conscious one. And in all that time, no one has thought to innovate a newer, better, greener sponge? Scratching your head? So am I! But perhaps, there is no such thing.

So, the stuff that comprises our everyday kitchen sponge is not exactly earth friendly. Neither are its counterparts, such as the single-use paper towel or antibacterial wipes.

That everyday sponge is that typical yellow and green one. The yellow part is the sponge, the green part is the scouring pad. Both are equally evil. They contain plastics from polyurethane, which is petroleum-based, which makes it a crude oil from fossil fuels. They also contain bleach, sulfates, harsh chemicals, and synthetic foam. They're not just bad for the environment, they're bad for your health, even when they're clean!

How did that info go down? Like a big lump in your throat? Wait--there's more.

kitchen sponge

How Long Does It Take For A Kitchen Sponge To Decompose?

This is the butt-kicker question. This is the one whose answer will grab you by the wrist next time you reach for that 2+1 pack of yellow-green sponges in the supermarket. We can safely, though reluctantly, assume that they take at least hundreds of years, given their chemical constituents. However, some online articles suggest that they can take up to 52,000 years!

I'm hesitant to slap a "verified as fact" label on this number though, because not one of those online sources provides any reference to back that fact up. We have no idea if that is scientifically proven. Regardless, a few hundred years is enough for me to swap out the sponge for a washable, reusable alternative, which I won't leave as a sopping wet rag in my kitchen sink!

Dirty Words

Let's clear up a few misconceptions regarding our eco-lingo. It's possible there has never been a more confused set of terms than recyclable, compostable, and biodegradable. Except perhaps, there, their, and they're!

These words are used interchangeably, but actually, there are important differences (in both examples!).


Recycling an item converts it to something new and keeps it out of a landfill. But that doesn't mean we can recycle all "recyclables" ad infinitum. Aluminum, glass, and metal can be recycled until the end of days, but materials like standard plastics and paper only get a few runs before they become unusable.


If a material is biodegradable, it means it can be broken down naturally by microorganisms like fungi and bacteria, given the right conditions. (And if it were the case that your kitchen sponge were biodegradable, there wouldn't be much left of it!).

Just because it's an organic process, doesn't mean it happens quickly. Some things take years to biodegrade. A banana peel, for instance, takes 2 years before it will cease to exist. Biodegradable plastic bags, seemingly innocuous and free of carbon footprints, are at a minimum leaving a carbon toeprint because the process required to create the right conditions often produces harmful greenhouse emissions.


Any product labeled as compostable is (must be) made from natural materials to fully arrive at its life's destiny as compost without creating any toxic residue. Keep in mind that composting is a controlled process managed by an industrial facility. If a product is not labeled specifically as "home compostable," it's not safe to throw in your home compost.

So, Now What?

Saving the planet and keeping ourselves healthy involves individual effort. Not just once, but every day. The best kitchen sponge alternative is very rarely some new fangled thing. Rather, we have to go back to the days of yesteryear when we reused things (how old fashioned!). Like my mother with her hand-knitted dish rags. They don't have to be homespun versions, of course--it's the reusing bit that's important. Just ensure you wash them regularly, and in between cleanings, rinse, squeeze, and hang them to dry. It's an easy-peasy sponge-free squeezy act that will take seconds of your time, save a lot of waste, and keep those bacteria levels down.

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From our kitchen to yours, enjoy cleaner, greener times in your kitchen!

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