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5 things businesses should know about green cleaning during the COVID-19 pandemic

As cleaning becomes the most important topic for CEOs hoping their employees will come back to the office, these green experts give their advice for cleaning effectively and sustainably.

Spraying for coronavirus

Spraying as a prevention against COVID-19.

Because of the pandemic, CEOs and other high-level executives are being pulled into technical and specific conversations about a subject many previously never thought twice about: cleaning.

"It’s way down the food chain," said Green Seal CEO Doug Gatlin. "I don’t think that a real estate CEO was ever involved in a decision-making conversation about the cleaning side of the business. Of course now, cleaning, disinfecting and COVID mitigation are probably the No. 1 topic of every CEO."

According to Gatlin, the janitorial industry is widely outsourced because it's a hard sector to make a profit; even building managers usually don’t have an internal cleaning service. But in order for employees and customers to feel safe, businesses are projecting their cleaning strategies like advertising campaigns. 

Atlantic writer Derek Thompson called this "Hygiene Theater," arguing that since the World Health Organization hasn’t recorded a coronavirus infection from a surface since early July, it’s a huge waste of time. 

Cleaning, disinfecting and COVID mitigation are probably the No. 1 topic of every CEO.

But green cleaning experts see the hypercleaning trend as an opportunity to educate consumers and businesses about healthier alternatives to harsh disinfectants, more efficient technologies and procedures. As both companies and individuals start cleaning everything multiple times a day, they should be more concerned about what is actually in the products. 

Here are five things to know about green cleaning during the pandemic for the safety and health of buildings and employees.

1. Consult List N about green products for COVID-19 eradication

"People are getting pummeled with [advertisements for] every cleaning solution under the sun," said Brenna Walraven, CEO of Corporate Sustainability Strategies. “Which can make it hard to decipher the best solution.”

But there is a way to filter through that marketing noise to find what will work against the virus while also being a greener alternative. List N: Disinfectants for Use Against SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19), developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, identifies 478 products (as of press time) that work against the virus. Not all have been directly tested against the virus; however, they are capable of killing viruses deemed harder to eradicate than the COVID-19 pathogen and are thus eligible.

"COVID-19 has what's called a lipid shell, which is just grease. So it's actually very fragile to cleaning and disinfecting," said Steve Ashkin, founder of the Ashkin Group.

But even if COVID-19 is easy to kill, Ashkin still recommends using a product that actually has been tested against the virus. He also said it’s important to use a product from List N that uses antimicrobial ingredients approved by the EPA’s Design for the Environment program, which lists certain active ingredients found to be safer for human health and the environment. Those seven ingredients are citric acid, hydrogen peroxide, L-lactic acid, ethanol, isopropanol, peroxyacetic acid and sodium bisulfate. Someone will need to consult and compare the lists to ensure they are using a green product that also kills the coronavirus. 

"Some people want to use the harshest, strongest products out there. Some people think that's somehow going to be better or more effective," Ashkin said. "But you can’t kill the virus deader than dead."

2. Not all technologies are equal and not all are safe

Two new technologies have become prevalent in conversations about cleaning surfaces of the COVID-19 virus: foggers and electrostatic sprayers. While they are usually mentioned in conjunction with one another, experts believe electrostatic sprayers offer a chance for more sustainable and better cleaning while foggers are perceived to be dangerous and are not recommended by the CDC.

Electrostatic sprayers aerosolize particles in chemical cleaners to coat the surfaces of desks, furniture and other surfaces with less solution than traditional cleaning methods. According to Gatlin, you can use two-thirds less formula with an electrostatic sprayer. However, many janitors are using electrostatic sprayers with cleaners and disinfectants that are not formulated for aerosolized applications. 

"You could actually have a double whammy," Gatlin said. "You could be spraying stuff into the air that isn’t safe in an aerosol form. And then it may not even be effective against controlling coronavirus."

Gatlin suggests reading the labels of cleaners more closely to ensure they can be used in an electrostatic cleaner.

While electrostatic cleaners target furniture and surfaces very narrowly and are wiped up after a period of time, foggers do the opposite by pumping aresoled cleaner into an entire room. They distribute the disinfectant, a chemical substance, indiscriminately. The residue ends up on papers, water bottles, chairs and so forth, and can last for days, weeks or months.

Foggers have been linked to asthma flare-ups and other health issues. Some are necessary for cleaning large spaces quickly such as mass transit but they aren’t ideal for an office environment, experts said.

"It will kill pathogens and many types of viruses," Walraven said. "But you don't really want to occupy that space the next morning or have it touch your skin as these can be toxic for human health."

Office cleaning
3. A specific strategy will make cleaning more successful and efficient 

To avoid overcleaning or cleaning for cleaning’s sake, businesses should have a cleaning strategy. Because surface transmission related to COVID-19 is so low, cleaning every surface shouldn’t be the goal, according to those interviewed for this article. That strategy can overwhelm your staff. 

Ashkin recommends focusing on high-touch areas such as light switches, door handles and elevator buttons. Education is required: Simply spraying and immediately wiping up a disinfected won’t kill the virus, so those cleaning offices will need to adjust their work habits. Products need anywhere from 30 seconds to 10 minutes of wet saturation to kill the virus. List N outlines how long is needed for each product. 

Finally, Ashkin created the idea of a "health porter" with some of his clients. Day porters are a common role in the cleaning industry. While most cleaning happens when offices are closed, a day porter is there to respond to any immediate cleaning needs during the day such as spills, lack of toilet paper and other issues. 

"We’re applying the same concept to a health porter," he said. "This is somebody who is addressing cleaning and disinfecting needs based on what’s really happening in the building."

So, that could involve cleaning a conference room after a large meeting or disinfecting the elevators during the rushes at the beginning and end of the day, and during lunch breaks.

"Let’s do it in a thoughtful, science-based way so what we are doing makes sense and it’s not theater, but really is providing good outcomes," Walraven said. 

4. Not everything killed by disinfectants is bad

With the hyper disinfecting happening, we are killing more than just the coronavirus. 

"If you look at the U.S. consumers over the last few decades, killing everything around them and disinfecting has become very, very important," said Clemens Heikaus, head of Novozymes’ microbial cleaning department. "And that message has been reinforced by COVID-19. The most valuable claim is 99.9 percent kill."

But disinfectants kill many bacteria and microbes that are good for the environment and health. Just as a doctor might prescribe a probiotic or encourage someone to eat yogurt while taking an antibiotic, it is important to reintroduce good bacteria back into homes and offices in a controlled way. Probiotic cleaners such as Veo and Counter Culture Clean use probiotics to continue cleaning long after someone has put the sponge and mop away, Heikaus noted.

Let’s do it in a thoughtful, science-based way so what we are doing makes sense and it’s not theater, but really is providing good outcomes.

"They stay behind waiting," Heikaus said. "And they continue to clean when there is a next spill or if a crack wasn't very clean."

Some of the biggest companies in the world already use this method. After applying a toxic disinfectant, The New York Stock Exchange’s final step in its deep clean was to add a layer of Z BioScience Enviro-Mist Microflora spray, a probiotic cleaner, to protect the area for a few more days.

"Let the disinfection happen first, with harsh chemistry," Heikaus said. "But then reintroduce a known entity back so that the surface continues to clean itself."

5. Third parties can help validate cleaning procedures

Cleaning to this extent and with this much importance is a new frontier for many businesses. But there are industries ready to help navigate the crowded and confusing space. 

"What I'm seeing in the industry is people are trying to get some validation that they’re doing the right thing," Walraven said. "They’re setting up a plan, bringing in experts to help guide them and working with certified providers knowledgeable with approaches that support risk reduction and also reduce negative impacts to human health."

Third-party organizations and standards can help confirm an approach and make sure it’s safe, sustainable and successful. Walraven recommends Green Seal’s Disinfecting Guidelines and UL’s COVID-19 support and services program, which will evaluate cleaning procedures and indoor air quality. According to Walraven, LEED certifications can also help guide organizations towards the best sustainable option for a business. 

"I think it’s a good way to get another layer of protection, not only to reduce that risk of COVID, but also to protect health impacts and sustainability objectives," she said. 

2020 was supposed to be a marquee year for sustainability. But with the pandemic, sustainability for sustainability's sake had to change. Instead, purposeful innovations that are sustainable but also protect health, safety and justice have become the focus. The cleaning industry already knows how to combine sustainability and human health so it can be the guide to lead the industry in this shift.

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