Services & Maintenance: Planning Green Cleaning

By R.E. “Skip” Seal, LEED® AP
Published in the January 2011 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

green facility cleaning environment
Evaluating products and methods with specific criteria in mind helps pave the way to sustainable cleaning programs. (Photo: Spartan Chemical Company, Inc.)

For most facility managers (fms), there are a variety of reasons to embark on creating a more sustainable and “green” cleaning regimen for their organizations. Improving the interior atmosphere to protect occupant health (whether in a school, office, healthcare, or other setting) is one aim, while conserving natural resources and reducing negative impact on the environment is another leading motivator.

A first goal of green cleaning should be to protect the health of people while minimizing the effect on future generations. If this sounds familiar, it is because it paraphrases one definition of sustainability: “Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” attributed to the WCED: World Commission on Environment & Development, 1987.

Evaluating The Options

Fms can make quality decisions when purchasing for green cleaning by evaluating and comparing the contents of products. For paper and plastic items, they can look at the percentage of post consumer content in products. For chemicals, they may compare the petrochemical and/or biobased content of each product.

Third-party certifications (such as Green Seal, EPA’s Design for the Environment (Dfe), EcoLogo, and others) have taken much of the guesswork out of product selection to help protect purchasers from greenwashing (marketing claims and sales tactics to promote non sustainable products or programs as green and/or sustainable). Independent laboratories can provide third-party certification for biobased content.

If the first goal of green cleaning is to protect the health of people (occupants and cleaning staff alike), the second is to minimize the impact on the environment. Yet, there is also a third goal—performance. How should fms take these three goals into consideration when developing or reviewing their cleaning programs? Taking into consideration facility attributes and organizational culture, the following questions should be examined:

  • What are the acceptable cleaning standards for the building?
  • Will these standards provide for and protect the health of occupants?
  • What equipment will be required?
  • What chemicals will be required?
  • What paper and plastic products will be required?

The cleaning standards for a building should also take into consideration the desired or mandated appearance level, cleaning of high touch surfaces and objects, task frequencies, etc. For instance, if the building has high traffic but a wet look is required for the floors, what finish will provide gloss and durability with the least amount of buffing? A non certified finish may be the more sustainable choice if that finish requires less frequent buffing, top scrubbing, recoating, or stripping and refinishing when compared to a certified finish. In this case, choosing the non certified product can save electricity, water, chemical, pads, machine life, and labor.

Fortunately, however, most certified products do perform to an acceptable standard.

Still, there are some product categories that do not yet have certification criteria developed. So what should fms look for when no third-party certification is available for a product type? At a minimum, they should focus on those featuring:

  • no persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic chemicals;
  • no ozone depleting compounds;
  • no, or low, volatile organic compound (VOC) content;
  • no hazardous waste characteristics; and
  • no phosphate or phosphonates.

In seeking out more environmentally friendly cleaning products, fms may still encounter instances when decisions must be made between two non certified products, because there are no other suitable choices available. In these cases, fms can compare the products’ Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) to make the best choice for occupant health and environmental concerns.

At these times, fms can use the guideline provided in Presidential Executive Order 13101, which defines “environmentally preferable” products as those which “have a lesser or reduced effect on human health and the environment when compared with competing products or services that serve the same purpose.”

For example, there is currently no certification available for disinfectants, and the EPA is developing a standard to enable specifiers to select a green version of this product type. In the meantime, to protect health “high touch” objects (such as push plates, faucet handles, and doorknobs) these items should be cleaned and sanitized to help control the spread of communicable diseases.

A quality decision can be made in the spirit of Executive Order 13101 by comparing MSDS along with labeling instructions of EPA registered disinfectants. Some comparisons specifiers should make are: health hazard data, HMIS ratings, fire and explosion, spill and leak procedures, dilution ratios, and kill claims.

Charting The Cleaning Course

In pursuing green cleaning, fms may be pursuing or maintaining specific certifications for their facility (such as LEED, CIMs-GB, or GS-42), or they may be looking to provide a healthier building environment without pursuing any of those programs. Whatever the scenario, there are literally hundreds of steps to choose from to begin or expand upon a green cleaning plan. Fms can take one step by changing to a certified glass cleaner, then take another when changing paper and/or plastic products.

Another possible step is to migrate from ready to use products over to concentrated products that are dispensed accurately. Take glass cleaner for example: one case of four, two liter bottles of concentrated biobased glass cleaner can replace up to 135 cases of ready to use glass cleaner in quart bottles. If performance is the same or better, then the dispensing of the concentrated product is the greener choice. (The concentrated approach can also reduce shipping expenses and fossil fuel use.)

In making changes, fm may need to overcome preconceived perceptions held by their staff. Many cleaning personnel are under the perception that green products are too expensive and don’t get the job done. However, due to regulation, third-party certification, and increasing competition between suppliers, many green products outperform the non green choices and have a cost neutral or positive impact on budgets.

Fms can overcome resistance from cleaning staff if a green cleaning program is implemented with WIIFM (What’s In It For Me?) in mind. If cleaning staff personnel realize the benefits to them, the process can be expedited. Some key benefits are improved performance, improved health, and a sense of well-being from doing the right thing.

One strategy for fms is to offer staff a title they earn by participating in third-party certification and taking a test, and then giving them business cards bearing their name and title. Another technique, if fms suspect resistance, is to work with a distributor to select a green product that is expected to outperform a product currently in use. Once the fm and staff are satisfied with performance and cost, the “test” product can be introduced as an upgrade, and it’s a pleasant surprise to the staff.

Still, resistance is decreasing as more people are coming to realize that “going green” is a fast moving train. Stakeholders can get on board, get out of the way, or get run over. And local janitorial supply distributors can be significant sources of information on how to start the journey to being more sustainable. These professionals are more than happy to offer both their knowledge and their bundles of green products.

Organized, routine cleaning must be an integral part of a green solution, with emphasis on health first and appearances second. Whether an fm has taken a few steps on the green journey or has achieved a prestigious third-party certification, it is important to continue the efforts to improve cleaning efficiencies.

Seal began his career with Spartan Chemical Company, Inc. in 1978, serving as regional manager of the Oklahoma Region, until his promotion to divisional sales manager in 2000. LEED®AP and CIMS GB (I.C.E.) certified, he is an instructor of green cleaning certification programs for the company.