Finding the Green in Cleaning Products
Across the country we are seeing specific efforts to translate these broad initiatives and concepts into practical implementation. And one of the early efforts that many facility managers are taking is green cleaning because it is often considered the lowest hanging fruit.
Presidential Executive Order 13101 defines a green or environmentally preferable product as one that "reduces the health and environmental impacts compared to a similar product used for the same purpose." Green cleaning follows this executive order by simultaneously addressing both health and environmental impacts.
While we recognize the importance of effective cleaning to protect the health of our building occupants, we often fail to appreciate the immense size of the commercial cleaning industry in the U.S., which annually consumes some 8 billion pounds of chemicals, 4.5 billion pounds of janitorial paper products and 1 billion pounds of other tools, mats and equipment.
We know specifically that there are potential health impacts associated with the use of cleaning chemicals, including questions about their sustainability because most are made from petroleum. We also know that some cleaning chemicals can cause health issues, such as asthma and respiratory irritation because they are inhaled by both product users and building applicants when they evaporate.
Some cleaning products contain ingredients capable of burning eyes and skin, or can cause reproductive and other problems after being absorbed through the skin. When used and disposed of, some products can contribute to atmospheric smog, sicken aquatic life and persist in the environment to accumulate in living organisms, including both people and organisms across the entire chain.
These problems are real examples, but to be fair, these chemicals have also had a profoundly positive effect and made a valuable contribution to protecting public health, extending life expectancy and improving our quality of life.
It is important to point out that the green cleaning movement is not suggesting that these chemicals are bad. Instead, we are simply suggesting that facilities can reach the same, if not superior, levels of cleanliness and hygiene in ways that further increase the margin of safety and reduce the potential for harm while using more sustainable products. Cleaning chemicals, like products in all categories, simply have improved and we no longer need to assume the risks of more hazardous traditional products.
Making the Switch to Green Cleaning Products
Many facility managers are rapidly embracing green chemicals because it is easy and typically cost competitive compared to the traditional products being replaced. Facilities managers are concluding that it no longer makes sense to use old-fashioned cleaning technologies when more modern, greener alternatives are readily available.
The first step for many facilities when switching to green cleaning chemicals, such as all-purpose, glass, washroom and carpet cleaners, is using "certified" products from organizations such as Green Seal and Environmental Choice. The reason that certified products are used is simply because it makes purchasing easy and assures buyers that a third-party has independently evaluated the product's health, safety, environmental and performance attributes.
Facilities are converting to metal-free floor finishes and focusing their efforts more on daily and routine maintenance, such as using longer entryway mats and microfiber dust mops to make floor finishes last longer and reduce the frequency of stripping and recoating.
Chlorine-based cleaners, stain removers and sanitizers are being replaced by oxygenated alternatives, including some made from hydrogen peroxide. Biological cleaners, such as drain openers, hard surface cleaners and degreasers, can now be made using bacteria and enzymes that mimic the ways in which nature cleans.
Emerging areas include the use of biobased chemicals or those derived from agricultural products, such as corn and soy beans that can be regrown each year, compared to other products derived from nonrenewable resources like petroleum. These biobased ingredients will initially replace traditional solvents and detergent-based products.
While it is a fact that the chemical manufacturers became the first segment of the cleaning industry to embrace the green movement, other sectors, including janitorial paper, equipment, tools and supply manufacturers, have jumped on board. Facility managers also have found efficient and cost-effective means to include these products in comprehensive green cleaning programs that seeks to minimize the impact on health and the environment.
Some of the additional strategies being used include following the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Comprehensive Procurement Guidelines, which cover the minimal amount of post-consumer recycled content in janitorial paper products and plastic trash can lines.
Facility managers can further lower costs by replacing multi- and C-fold hand towels with large rolls to reduce consumption by about 30 percent. Standardizing trash cans to ensure that plastic liners are the correct size eliminates wasted materials and reduces cost.
The Carpet & Rug Institute's Seal of Approval programs for vacuum cleaners and carpet extraction equipment can help facility managers go beyond the sales hype to identify equipment that does a superior job of removing, capturing and disposing of carpet soil.
As the green cleaning movement has matured, we have begun to recognize that to achieve our ultimate goal of creating a high performing buildings with minimal — and hopefully zero — negative environmental impacts, we must consider the actual processes by which the products are used.
Facility managers today are experimenting with all types of cleaning "systems," from team cleaning to day-cleaning to collaborative cleaning and more. They are going beyond traditional cleaning responsibilities to find opportunities to reducing energy consumption by turning off lights, lower water use by utilizing microfiber cleaning systems or more efficient carpet and floor scrubbing equipment.
The conversion to green and environmentally preferable cleaning products and systems is accelerating as it becomes easier and more cost competitive compared to their traditional counterparts. This is a very good thing for both facility managers, occupants, cleaning personnel and our future.
Stephen Ashkin is president of the Ashkin Group LLC and author of the Green Cleaning newsletter.
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