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By Stephen Ashkin
Published in the January 2008 issue of Today’s Facility Manager
Ten years ago, “green” was barely discussed by facility managers—except as possibly the color of a new carpet. Oh, how much has changed!
Climate change and sustainability are terms frequently seen in today’s mass media. Major consumer product companies have taken to the airwaves to advertise their new green products. Legislatures at the state and local levels are increasingly passing provisions for green buildings. And energy as a cost and security issue continues to grow as a serious national concern.
As a result, many building occupants are paying more attention to the issue than ever before, which is accelerating the demand for green products and services in every category. While facility managers (fms) have a long list of issues to address in this realm, one of the “low hanging fruits” is green cleaning. Cleaning is a large expense, typically ranging from 80¢ to $2.25 per square foot, and it is an expense that has to be managed (and often reduced). How cleaning is executed is often the cause of many occupant complaints.
Green cleaning can be an enormously cost-effective strategy for an organization, since it is already part of the facility budget and it frequently doesn’t cost more than the traditional program it is replacing. Furthermore, it can help typical facility occupants understand how green strategies can directly affect them in ways that are often difficult to explain when installing a photovoltaic array, a geothermal heating and cooling system, a vegetative roof, or other green technology at a building.
What Is Green Cleaning?
Fms can best understand green cleaning by thinking of it as a concept, or overall approach, when considering cleaning products and services. The concept is that green cleaning seeks to reduce health and environmental impacts associated with the cleaning process while meeting the facility’s performance and cost requirements.
A simple working definition of green cleaning can be explained as “cleaning to protect health without harming the environment.” It recognizes the important role that cleaning products, along with effective cleaning processes, have in creating healthy, high performing environments—which result in increased worker productivity, decreased absenteeism, improved student performance on standardized tests, and other positive performance metrics.
But what truly makes green cleaning different from traditional cleaning approaches is that it recognizes the huge impacts that cleaning has on the environment itself. For example, non-residential cleaning in the United States annually consumes:
- Eight billion pounds of cleaning chemicals—most of which are derived from valuable, non-renewable natural resources such as petroleum. Some of these chemicals can harm workers and occupants during use and contribute to environmental problems during both use and disposal;
- Four and a half billion pounds of janitorial paper products (e.g. paper hand towels and toilet tissue), most of which is made with virgin tree fiber requiring the annual cutting of approximately 30 million trees. With this comes the risk that many of those trees are harvested in an unsustainable manner, which results in long-term negative impacts on forest ecosystems. There are also the environmental impacts associated with manufacturing the virgin fiber into paper; and
- One billion pounds of supplies and equipment (e.g. mop buckets and vacuum cleaners) are used and disposed of each year (enough to fill 40,000 garbage trucks). And making new products requires the extraction of raw materials, results in emissions to air and water along with the energy consumption to manufacture those raw materials into finished products, and requires transportation throughout the supply chain.
Again, it is worth stating that the goal of green cleaning is not to suggest that cleaning or the cleaning industry are “bad” or the major contributor to global environmental problems. This, of course, is hardly the case. However, cleaning plays an incredibly important role in protecting public health. In general, facilities and occupants would benefit if the amount of cleaning was increased. So while the cleaning industry may not be the largest contributor to environmental problems, it is a huge industry. Fortunately, it has become easier for fms to purchase cleaning products and services that can make a difference in protecting health and the environment while leading to a more sustainable future.
Why Should Fms Care?
Fms should consider green cleaning for two simple reasons. The first is because it is a large budget item. The national average for cleaning is approximately $1.50 per square foot in a Class A commercial building. Today, green cleaning can be an excellent opportunity due to its tremendous return on investment.
Increasing demand and competitive forces have resulted in lower costs for green products, which now perform comparably to traditional products in almost every category. Thus, benefits are had, and risks to worker and occupant health are reduced with no increase in cost in most product categories.
The second and perhaps more powerful reason for adopting green cleaning is marketing. Today, many building occupants want to do the right thing and be part of an organization that is making a difference. Oftentimes, it can be difficult for an occupant to understand or make a personal connection to a green strategy being implemented in their building.
Thus, one of the greatest strengths of implementing green cleaning is that it is simpler for occupants to understand how a greening initiative can directly affect them. It can affect their health, their families, and the environment. These are all good things and help to demonstrate why other green building initiatives are valuable.
In addition, when marketing a building or the organization as a whole, fms are not only communicating with current occupants through tools such as newsletters and signage, but they are also marketing the facility to prospective future occupants and other stakeholders. Green cleaning is a very simple program that most people not only “get,” but that they value. Wouldn’t most people prefer to work in, shop in, or manage a building focused on creating a healthier setting with a lower environmental impact?
Following The Green Cleaning “Roadmap”
Over the past five years, a number of organizations in a variety of building segments have developed guidelines for green cleaning, which has made it easier for fms to research what are the elements that constitute a green cleaning program. Using these guidelines as “roadmaps,” fms can spend their time implementing the program, rather than researching it.
Fms can find guidance from many sources, including the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED for Existing Buildings rating system; Hospitals for a Healthy Environment’s 10 Steps to Green Cleaning; the Healthy Schools Campaign’s Quick & Easy Guide to Green Cleaning in Schools; and “Green Cleaning for Dummies,” a Wiley Publication [co-authored by the author of this article] and distributed by the International Sanitary Supply Association, which has compiled the “roadmaps” from these other resources.
Identifying Green Products
Whether a facility is using an outside or in-house cleaning service, the decision makers should consider the following specifications for their green cleaning products. These requirements are taken from the “roadmap” sources mentioned earlier, and they can be added to an existing contract without making wholesale changes to the document itself.
Chemical Cleaning Products
- Glass cleaners, all purpose cleaners, general purpose cleaners, and washroom cleaners should be listed under Green Seal’s GS-37 and/or Environmental Choice’s CCD-146.
- Other cleaning chemicals not covered by Green Seal’s GS-37 should be listed under the California Code of Regulations for the maximum VOCs by product category, or under Green Seal’s GS-34 and/or Environmental Choice’s CCD-110 for Cleaning and Degreasing Compounds.
- Hand soaps specified should be listed under Green Seal’s GS-41 and/or Environmental Choice’s CCD-104, or should be those without added antimicrobial ingredients except where required by code or regulation (e.g. healthcare or food preparation).
- Floor care products should be listed under Green Seal’s GS-40 and/or Environmental Choice’s CCD-147.
- Carpet care products should be listed under Green Seal’s GS-37 and/or Environmental Choice’s CCD-148.
- Additionally, managers can look for products in various categories developed in partnership with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Design for the Environment (DfE) Formulator Initiative.
- Paper hand towels should meet one or more of the following criteria: must contain a minimum of 40% post-consumer recycled content; be listed under Green Seal’s GS-09 and/or Environmental Choice’s CCD-086; and have Chlorine Free Products Association certification.
- Toilet tissue should meet one or more of the following criteria: must contain a minimum of 20% post-consumer recycled content; be listed under Green Seal’s GS-01 and/or Environmental Choice’s CCD-082; and have Chlorine Free Products Association certification.
- Additionally, all paper products should be derived from rapidly renewable fiber sources (trees that mature in less than 20 years, such as bamboo or eucalyptus) or non-tree fiber sources (e.g. switch grass or wheat straw).
Plastic Trash Can Liners
- Liners should contain a minimum of 10% post-consumer recycled content and be sized properly for the trash can to minimize excess material.
- Vacuum cleaners should be a Carpet & Rug Institute’s Green Labeled item.
- Carpet extraction equipment should have earned the Carpet & Rug Institute’s Bronze Seal of Approval (at a minimum).
- Floor burnishers should feature shrouds and active vacuum attachments.
Green cleaning is happening in more and more organizations, and it is here to stay. Following these simple roadmaps makes it easier for fms to implement the practice.
And, because these product standards are widely available from manufacturers, janitorial supply distributors, and facility service providers, they are cost competitive to traditional products. These products, combined with an effective, systematic cleaning process, can result in a cleaner, healthier, and safer facility while reducing its impact on the natural environment at the same time.
Ashkin is founder and president of The Ashkin Group, LLC and is often thought of as “the father of green cleaning.” His consulting firm works internationally with facility managers to implement green cleaning practices. For more information, call (812) 332-7950, or visit www.AshkinGroup.com on the Web.