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Green vs. Clean: The ICS Q&A (Full Answers)

We asked a panel of experts about green cleaning for a Q&A in our October issue of ICS and our experts delivered – so much so that there was no way we could fit all of their complete answers into the magazine. So while we included the highlights to their answers in the magazine, there was a lot more to many of their answers – and it was too good of stuff to not share. Read on to see the answers, in full, from Doyle Bloss (HydraMaster, U.S. Products), Mike Kerner (Legend Brands), Frank Kinmonth (Chemspec), Jessika James (Prochem) and Mike Sawchuck (Enviro-Solutions).

ICS Cleaning Specialist: If you “go green,” do you risk sacrificing cleanliness? In other words, is there a difference between green and clean?

Doyle Bloss:Dr. Michael Berry said it best. “Green” and “clean” should be synonymous terms. A clean environment is a green environment so long as the wastes produced from the cleaning process are properly disposed of. If, in order to get an extremely dirty surface clean, you have to use massive amounts of a green chemical to get it clean, and in doing so, you leave a large amount of organic material behind on the surface, you may be contributing to the growth of mold or bacteria in the indoor environment. That is not a green concept. The good news is that the performance of green chemicals has improved dramatically in the last 10 years. In cases where an indoor environment is being properly cleaned and maintained by a trained and certified cleaning professional, on a recommended frequency basis using industry accepted and defined standards of care you will not have to sacrifice anything by using green chemicals. The bad news is that this still takes the cooperation of the residential or commercial cleaning client.

How many carpet cleaning jobs have you done in the last year that were “being properly cleaned and maintained by a trained and certified cleaning professional on a recommended frequency basis using industry accepted and defined standards of care?” If people, whether they be the facility manager of a large commercial building or Mrs. Piffleton, really want you to be able to effectively clean their indoor environment with only “green products and procedures,” then they have to make a commitment too. You can’t let soil and filth and grime and allergens and pollutants and VOCs and bacteria build up and build up in a high-traffic carpeted environment, and then expect the professional cleaner to restore the carpet to a “like new” appearance without stronger or harsher chemistry. A day may be coming where you can clean a neglected Chinese Restaurant carpet with only green chemicals, but I don’t think we are quite there yet.

Mike Kerner:I hear both answers in the field. Water damage restoration technicians and “project” cleaners, primarily carpet, upholstery and hard surface cleaners, often hesitate when considering green products. They have real faith in traditional chemistries. But the individuals who do routine janitorial cleaning are much more open to green products. This is partly because cleaners feel green products are quite capable of lighter-duty cleaning and mostly because their customers increasingly request or require green-certified products. And when it comes to maintaining LEED certification, for example, there’s no choice: green products must be used.

A common perception is that green products are great for routine cleaning. But for the tougher challenges presented by restoration, however, some cleaners feel green products not up to the task.

Frank Kinmonth:“Going green” is a win-win for everyone. Old technologies (basically watered down traditional ones) were ineffective and in many cases premium priced to take advantage of beginning consumer trends to appeal to the idea of using greener, safer products.  This trend led initially to the myth today that green products didn’t work and were too expensive.  Today there are some very valid cleaning products and others that in fact have been proven to clean as effectively as traditional petroleum based cleaners. This is not to say that traditional is bad, but why not use products that are in fact safer for the cleaner, the residence, the inhabitants and the environment? You do not risk cleanliness if you use products to the manufacturer specifications. Products that have these certifications have demonstrated that they work, and as we like to say at Chemspec, “leave it better than the way we found it.”

Jessika James:With the lack of proper “green” guidelines, it is up to the cleaning or restoration technician to choose products that best fit his client’s green needs concerning product manufacturing protocols, chemistry, health and environmental concerns and product packaging. We have some amazing new chemical technology available that is considered to be green and can get excellent cleaning results when properly using these green chemicals and environmentally-aware cleaning methods.

Mike Sawchuck:In 1975 I would have probably answered “yes,” but not today. However, there still are green cleaning products that do not match their traditional counterparts’ performance.  But today some green certified products are as effective as, or better than, traditional cleaning products. This is where an astute jansan distributor can be most helpful. If the distributor knows green cleaning products and understands the cleaning challenges of the client, he or she can often suggest the most effective environmentally preferable products. However, if not satisfied with the selection of your current distributor, look to another.

ICS: What should professionals know about chemistry to decide whether or not to buy a “green” product?

DB: You have to start by doing something that the so-called “experts” have not been able to agree upon themselves - decide what the definition of green is. What is a green chemical and how is the green being measured? Is it what kind of environmental footprint its use leaves on the outdoor environment? Is it how it makes the indoor environment safer? Many look at green as a measure of sustainability, and the use of renewable resources. Others focus on the packaging the chemical is in, and how it comes from recycled materials or will be recycled. Does the use of the ingredient reduce the use of resources? Is anyone measuring the health impact of these new ingredients on the occupants of the home or the business, or the cleaning technician who uses them every day? Most of all, do they work? Do they clean the surface quickly and effectively without causing any harm to the construction and texture of the surface? Who is measuring that?  While the easy answer here is to tell them to only buy third party “certified green” cleaning products that have been evaluated, tested, and approved by organizations like Green Seal or the EPA’s Design for Environment program, the truth is that it is a bit more complicated than that. There is no certifying body I am aware of that considers all of the above stated potential measurements of green in their product certification process. In fact, they don’t even always agree on what constitutes green within each measurement. For example, there are petroleum derived products that qualify as green ingredients. Isn’t the use of petroleum using up non-renewable resources? On the flip side of that, D’Limonene is a natural solvent that is derived from the peel of oranges and other citrus fruits. How natural and sustainable can something be? Yet, most third party certification programs do not recognize D’Limonene as a “green” ingredient. Finally, I always think about what an industry friend told me many years ago. Dr. Eugene Cole is a Professor of Environmental Health Sciences at Brigham Young University. When he was assisting Dr. Michael Berry in groundbreaking studies on the impact of cleaning on the “healthfulness” of the indoor environment, I asked him about what at the time was the “hot” new green ingredient, he stated, “If we are truly dealing the development of new chemistry, how do you do a comprehensive long-term health effects study on the impact of a new chemical in the short term?”

I am often asked why I think that the buying of “certified green” cleaning solutions has not taken on as strong of a hold in the professional carpet cleaning industry as it has in the jansan world. I think the answer for this is actually quite simple. The majority of a professional carpet cleaner’s customers are residential. There is no doubt that some residential households are certainly paying strict attention to the use of green chemicals in their home. However I think the trust relationship that develops between a trained, certified professional carpet cleaner and his/her repeat residential customer includes the idea that there is an assumption that the cleaner will make the safest and best choices for what chemicals are brought into the home. With a majority of residential customers, they lean on the professional cleaner to know what the right thing to do is.

While many professionals state their preference to keep using an “old favorite” cleaning solution, what they may not realize is that fundamental ingredients within some of the old favorites have already changed. As the performance of green-rated ingredients have greatly improved over the last 10 years, many formulators have already switched from a conventional ingredient to a green one. After all, it just makes sense if a green-rated ingredient works just as well or better and is cost-effective, why would a progressive formulator not use more green-rated ingredients in their formulations? Essentially, as new innovations in green chemistry are developed, cleaners will use more and more cleaning solutions that contain a large percentage of or that totally contain green ingredients. The cleaner may be “going green” without the realization that it is happening. The cost of third party certification of a green chemical in a small industry like ours may prevent companies from making a green claim on the label, but make no mistake, most products are moving toward being greener.

I think the answer lies in working with a reputable chemical formulator and manufacturer who can readily identify which of their cleaning solutions meets the highest level of the greatest number of green measurements. If a professional cleaner wants to go green, simply ask for assistance. One caveat here, when cleaning some commercial buildings, especially government buildings, cleaners will often be asked to bid with and specify the use of a specific third party green-certified product. My advice is to use a product that meets the criteria as specifically as possible. If the cleaning company itself is LEED Certified, then they should use chemicals that meet the provisions of that certification. Once again, simply identify a chemical manufacturer that you trust and ask. Just last week, I talked to a customer who needed a specific EPA FIFRA regulated disinfectant for a job. Since our company does not make one, I gave him the name of a product and the reputable competitor he could purchase it from.

MK:Chemistry is chemistry. It doesn’t matter if the chemistry in question is green or not, professional cleaners will benefit from understanding what’s going on with a cleaning product. Professionals should know as much as possible! Indeed, when using green products, you really need to understand what makes them green, so you need even more understanding of chemistry.

Ironically, green certification can lead to a false sense of safety. Green products are not free of risk. Some green products can damage surfaces, react unfavorably with other chemicals and even cause injury if they are not properly handled.

FK:Look for the “Certification” on the label. Green Seal, Environmental Choice, Design for the Environment “DFE” or Green Guard. These certifications mean that the products perform to standards including the safety of raw materials and finished product and the performance on the desired surface whether it be hard or soft. Not all products that claim to be green cleaners are created equal. Many make claims that stipulate “cleans to the DFE standard or meets all Green Seal standards.” Many make claims as to “No VOC’s.” Get the Green Guard certification which tests to parts per billion of off gassing and prove it. Beware of false claims that are not backed up with certifications and facts. Ask questions of the distributor or the manufacture.

MS:First, ensure the product is Green-certified by EcoLogo, Green Seal, or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Design for Living Program. Then, test different products side-by-side to see which one works best for your soil types, soil load, surfaces, water conditions, equipment/custodial hardware, and cleaning frequencies. And, of course, consider the after dilution/at-use cost.

ICS: Are “green” chemicals more expensive? If so, why should cleaners invest in these?

DB:When green ingredients were first being introduced, there is no doubt that they made some products more expensive. As their use has expanded greatly, most green ingredients are very competitive today with their “non-green” counterparts. In our relatively small industry, much of the cost of some green products is to pay for the expensive third party certification. Believe me, getting those certifications is a lengthy and expensive process. The manufacturer who gets a product certified is going to most likely pass along that cost to the customers who use it.

So what should a cleaner do? If they have a need for third party green-certified products, they should expect to pay more. We have already defined in a previous question when those times might be. If they are simply wanting to use products that are totally green or contain a large percentage of green-rated ingredients, there are lots of great-performing, competitively-priced products to choose from.

MK:In the past, the inherent chemistry of green cleaning was simply more expensive. They required specialty materials that were in short supply. And in some cases, components based on renewables, subject to cost and availability fluctuations based on crop yields. As green raw materials gain economies of scale, we see more competitive pricing for green-certified products. Remember, too, that certification itself adds cost to the product.

FK:They should not be and in fact should be even less in some cases. DFC-based technology is based on salts and other naturally derived raw materials with a very limited petroleum footprint.  The refinement of these materials is limited to the extraction of the material from its source and should not be significantly man altered. This process limits cost considerably and keeps the finished product cost low. “Going green” pays in that it opens up a tremendous market opportunity. With such a small percentage of the consuming public using the services of a professional cleaner on a regular basis (roughly 30%), the opportunity to tell a different story to the balance of the population is great! Assume that the 70% that does not use a professional cleaner has several reasons for not doing so.

  1. Financial, thinks it costs too much or has had a bad experience.
  2. DIY, do it yourself with the various rental units available.
  3. Health, with 15% - 20% of the consuming public having a chemical sensitivity of some kind, traditional cleaning products pose a problem.

It is this group that is keen on truly environmental cleaning solutions. This group tends to be clean anyway and understands the value of clean. Market your business as a truly environmentally-friendly cleaning company using the certified products available and tell a different story. A point of difference that appeals to every consumer and is a key point of difference versus the competition.

JJ:Great question! Yes, many of the green cleaning and restoration chemicals are more expensive – but not because of the green chemical  raw materials and environmentally aware manufacturing processes, but rather because it can cost a manufacturing company thousands of dollars annually to maintain certain reputable third party green endorsements and certification marks. For many residential and commercial cleaning companies, using or offering green cleaning solutions can be a very positive step. The consumer who requests green cleaning practices usually understands that the services may cost a bit due to the fact that they are requesting special services that conform to their personal philosophies or specific health concerns.

MS:Generally, green-certified products are not more expensive. On the contrary, many have found that switching to green-certified products has saved in overall chemical costs as well as total cleaning costs, including labor. This is often because some green chemicals are highly concentrated and use dilution control devises. They simply go further, which is a cost savings. In addition, typically with a green cleaning chemical program, there is an opportunity to rationalize the number of chemicals used, reducing inventory handling and carrying costs. Again, like traditional products, not all green products are created equal so one may need to search to find a better overall solution. And if having problems, do not simply accept that green doesn’t work for you, rather, accept that the green product you have tried to date haven’t worked for you. 

 ICS: What other incentives are there for cleaners to “go green?”

DB:I would make the case that many professional cleaners employ the use of an extremely green concept every day in their cleaning. One of the most overlooked green contributions that carpet cleaners make is in the use of heated cleaning solutions with their truckmount or high performance portable extractors. Several independent and peer-reviewed scientific studies have confirmed the value of heat in the carpet cleaning process. Yet this remains one area of carpet cleaning where gross misconceptions still exist. Hotter cleaning solution increases the chemical molecular activity of the cleaning chemical you are using (including water). This basic chemistry concept can be confirmed in basic science concepts by the Argonne National labs (http://www.newton.dep.anl.gov/askasci/gen01/gen01759.htm). Increased chemical activity means you will need to use less chemical to clean. Dr. Michael Berry, author of the book Protecting the Built Environment: Cleaning for Health, found that heat simply improves cleaning’s effectiveness. “Even without soap, small amounts of grease will dissolve in water, [but] the amount increases in hot water, sometimes ten-fold,” he says. There is nothing greener than a reduction in overall chemical usage.

Hotter cleaning solution contributes to a healthier indoor environment. Dr. Michael Berry and his associates, on behalf of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, did two groundbreaking studies measuring the impact of deep restorative carpet cleaning (utilizing hotter cleaning solution) in 1991 and 1994. The “Denver” Study in 1991 and the “Frank Porter Graham” Study in 1994 greatly advanced our understanding of the interaction between cleaning and the indoor environment. The “Denver” Study mainly looked at whether they could actually even measure particulates, gas phase organics and biological contamination in carpeting before, during, and after carpet cleaning. The “Frank Porter Graham” Study was a collaborative effort that involved participants from the cleaning industry utilizing “best industry practices” and deep cleaning methods for ongoing cleaning and maintenance in a Child Development Center on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Airborne dust contaminants were reduced by 52%. Total Volatile Organic Compounds decreased by 49%. Total bacterial was reduced by 40%, and total fungi declined by 61%. If the measurement of “green” includes making the indoor environment healthier, the contributions of hot water in the cleaning process cannot be overstated.

One of the points that I brought up with one third party certification group that seems to get completely overlooked by organizations writing policy that affect our industry has to do with the way that most modern truckmounts work. The fuel consumption used to power a truckmounted carpet cleaning machine, whether it be a slide-in or direct drive unit is going to exist in order to operate that unit. In most cases, it runs on gasoline. The heating of the water in a heat exchanger truckmount works by capturing heat from other sources (engine, blower, radiator, etc.) that are being powered anyway. The hot water created by a truckmount does not require the use of any additional resources beyond those required to run the truckmount. Using the fuel source for dual benefits – what could be greener than that?

The use of green cleaning solutions will matter to most professional carpet cleaners when they make it matter in their marketing and advertising. I know of carpet cleaning companies that have grown to several million dollars in annual revenue within a few years of their inception emphasizing green concepts in cleaning. I would argue that it was not the fact they were using green concepts that fueled their growth. It was that they found effective ways to make the fact matter that they were using green concepts to their potential customers and clients. In fact, other cleaners in their same towns who emphasized green have already disappeared. It is much like IICRC or other industry certifications, or belonging to industry trade associations, or just about any other expensive exercise a company undergoes to professionalize itself. It matters to the customer when you make it matter to this customer. It comes back to the ages old sales and marketing concept – answering the question of what is in it for them? Then,your company has to proceed to assuring them that your company is reputable and will stand behind its claims. Before you make the investment of time and money to add “green” or “eco” or “environment’ into your company name and cleaning procedures, put together a marketing plan where you can identify to your potential customers why that should matter to them.

MK:It can be easier to store green products and less expensive to transport them. Green products typically don’t have HAZMAT restrictions, as these restrictions can add considerably to the cost and inconvenience of handling some types of traditional chemicals. Customers are increasingly sensitive to air quality problems and strong odors. Because green products have very low volatile organic components, they are very appealing for this reason. As the market for green cleaning grows, restorers and cleaners who offer green cleaning are going to have more opportunities. Being able to serve an expanding customer base simply makes good business sense.

So there are good reasons to go green, but I believe there’s a missing component: return on investment. What concrete and measurable benefits to do we get from going green? Do we see fewer asthma incidents? Are Workmen’s Comp costs lower? I haven’t seen the widespread use of such metrics but they will come. Once objective measures are in widespread use, it will make the business case for green products even stronger.

FK:Clear marketing opportunities. Profitability, lower cost products means higher profit margins. Potentially lower workers compensation ratings as incentives could be installed to promote greener businesses promoting employee safety. Just as recycling has become second nature, cleaning green will be too and consumers will demand it. It has been well documented that “green” is here to stay. Regulatory issues will increase and it is better to be proactive to the trend than reactive. The light at the end of the tunnel is a freight train and its light is “green.”

JJ:What we do and how we conduct our businesses reflects on our personal business image and our industry as a whole. Taking even the smallest steps to preserve our environment, create healthier indoor environments, and reduce waste can make huge future changes. Going green may not be the correct choice for every cleaning or restoration project, but at least we now have the ability to choose to “go green” with very little sacrifice to cleaning results.

MS:The main reason is these products are safer for all people, including users, building occupants and visitors, as well as the environment. Secondly, if the safer products work as well or better and are priced competitively, then why not?  It is the right thing to do.

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