By Stephen P. Ashkin
For nearly 25 years, I have been advocating the use of environmentally preferable cleaning products and procedures. In 2016, green cleaning has become effectively the normal operating procedure for schools, office buildings, convention centers, and even sports venues around the world. So it came as a bit of a surprise earlier this year, during a presentation before a room of facility managers in a state that shall remain anonymous (to protect the innocent), that few attendees were really familiar with green cleaning, what makes a cleaning product “green,” or the role cleaning procedures and practices have in ensuring a clean, healthy facility with a reduced impact on the environment.
This event opened my eyes to the fact that there are likely many other facility managers who may also not know the ins and outs of green cleaning. Plus, many younger people now managing facilities all over North America may have limited knowledge about green cleaning.
Let’s start with what has become the working definition for green cleaning. Early in his presidency, former President Bill Clinton issued Executive Order 13101. It was a directive that, at the time, just applied to federally owned or operated facilities around the world; but, because the Federal Government has such significant influence on so many industries in this country and globally, Executive Order 13101 soon found its way into facilities around the world.
As it applies to cleaning, the Order states that facilities are to use “products or services that have a reduced effect on human health and the environment when compared with competing products or services that serve the same purpose.”
While it did not happen overnight, these 26 words essentially turned the professional cleaning industry upside down. At that time, few in the industry believed green cleaning was anything more than a fad. But with this Order, some of the leading manufacturers in the industry began investing in research and technology that would develop cleaning solutions that produced satisfactory results without ingredients we now know can negatively impact the health of people and the planet.
New technologies and advances within the professional cleaning industry now allow us to clean effectively with less impact to health or the environment. Traditional cleaning products, while they have served us well, can potentially harm the health and well-being of building occupants as well as the cleaning workers using the products. This is especially true if they are used improperly.
The use of traditional cleaning chemicals is also more likely to cause serious burns to skin and eyes and pose chronic health risks to the endocrine, neurological, respiratory, reproductive, and other systems of the human body.
Green Cleaning Certification
A very important term in the entire green cleaning movement is “green certification.” Before clarifying exactly what this is, one needs to take a look back at the history of green cleaning products.
As far back as the 1970s, some manufacturers, mostly in the consumer market, introduced cleaning solutions referred to as “ecological,” “environmentally friendly,” “green,” and a variety of other terms that indicated the product was healthier for users and the environment.
What these manufacturers were doing essentially was “self-certifying” products based on their own criteria. But, at this time, manufacturers all had their own set of standards and criteria, causing a lot of confusion for consumers and negatively impacting the entire green cleaning movement.
In many cases, self-certification was done with the best information of the day; in other cases, the use of these terms were for marketing purposes only. In fact, there are incidents where some products that were self-certified as green turned out to be more detrimental to the environment than the traditional products they were replacing.
It was clear that a set of standards and criteria that would apply to all manufacturers was necessary. This would also help end the confusion that consumers, as well as facility managers, faced when identifying what is and what is not a green cleaning product. Today, “green certification” references products (and services) that have been evaluated by an independent, approved laboratory, using universally accepted, science-based standards.
Leading certification organizations for cleaning solutions are UL Environment, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Safer Choice Program, and Green Seal. It should also be noted that cleaning equipment, such as vacuum cleaners and carpet extractors, are independently tested by the Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI). Based on CRI’s criteria, these machines are evaluated as to their reduced impact on the environment as well as their effectiveness.
Green Certified Cleaning Services
The use of green certified, environmentally preferable cleaning solutions and equipment is essential to a green cleaning program. However, the proper use of these products and the incorporation of “best practices” are also essential. ISSA, through its CIMS-GB (Green Building) program, and Green Seal’s GS-42 program have developed criteria to help cleaning professionals “clean green.” While the CIMS-GB program and GS-42 are similar, it appears CIMS-GB is based on an overall effective cleaning system with a focus on green cleaning, while the GS-42 program was developed specifically to create best practices in green cleaning.
An increasing number of facilities not only require the use of green certified cleaning chemicals, tools, and equipment, but their cleaning contractors must also be certified by one of these organizations.
And despite the differences, there are key components common to the CIMS-GB and GS-42 programs.
- Have a written green cleaning program in place, including how it will be implemented in a facility.
- Provide cleaning workers with proper training on how to use green cleaning products and equipment.
- Communicate with cleaning workers and building users as to why a green cleaning program is being implemented and its benefits.
- Address the special needs of a facility; for instance, facilities that serve vulnerable populations, such as young children or the elderly, may need specialized green cleaning plans.
- Validate cleaning results using such tools as ATP monitoring systems to help ensure that soils have been removed. Adenosine triphosphate found in all living cells is best known as ATP. If found on a surface it does not mean that disease-causing germs are present. However, for cleaning professionals testing surfaces with an ATP monitor, it does indicate that the surface needs to be properly cleaned (or recleaned) to protect the health of building occupants.
Regarding the ongoing progression of green cleaning, the next direction involves broader sustainability. However, this involves far more than just the use of cleaning solutions that, for instance, are made with renewable ingredients. Sustainability, as it applies to today’s professional cleaning industry as well as building operations, refers to:
- People: Providing fair treatment of workers, along with earnings and benefits, to help ensure they lead a healthy, dignified, and valuable life.
- Profit: Provide services at costs that are fair and ensure the profitability and growth of the company without negatively impacting workers or the local community.
- Planet: The traditional definition of sustainability is the use of cleaning chemicals, products, and equipment that have minimal impact on the environment as well as on natural resources.
Looking back 20+ years, has it been worth it to pursue these changes? Are we better off today in schools and other building sectors because green cleaning programs have been implemented?
In taking a look at schools, for instance, it is estimated that students in the U.S. miss approximately 14 million school days per year because of respiratory problems such as asthma. The Department of Education estimated that 20% of public schools in the U.S., if not more, report having unsatisfactory indoor air quality.
Many traditional cleaning products are made with such ingredients as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can negatively impact indoor air quality. Removing exposure to these pollutants, along with more effective cleaning procedures, could prevent more than 65% of asthma cases among elementary school-age children. And when this happens, according to studies by Carnegie Mellon University, there is an average overall health improvement rate of 41% due to improved indoor air quality.
This indicates that green cleaning in schools can improve the health of students and in turn, student performance and attendance. Similar studies have come to the same conclusion in all types of facilities around the world.*
Ashkin is president of The Ashkin Group and a leading advocate for sustainability in the professional cleaning industry. He is also CEO of Sustainability Dashboard Tools, which offers a cloud-based dashboard that allows organizations to measure, report, and improve their sustainability efforts. He is the co-author of both “The Business of Green Cleaning” and “Green Cleaning for Dummies.”
* U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 2013; and the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, 2003.
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