Green Cleaning and the Cleaning Professional

October 7, 2005
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The idea of "green" cleaning - and the growing impact it has on the cleaning and restoration industry - continues to evolve. Two of the foremost experts on the matter, Stephen Ashkin, president of The Ashkin Group, and Arthur Weissman, president and CEO of Green Seal, Inc., were able to give ICS a look at some of what the industry can expect in the coming years.

ICS Cleaning Specialist: How does the continuing shift toward "greener" environments affect the professional cleaning personnel? The manufacturer? The facility manager?
Arthur Weissman: The movement toward greener built environments affects everyone on the "supply" side of the building sector in a profound but potentially very positive way. Manufacturers of products, supplies, and equipment; professional cleaning services; and facility owners and managers must all realize that the conventional way of operating and maintaining buildings is no longer sufficient to ensure a healthy workplace or sustainable environment at large, and that there are new ways to operate and clean buildings that are more healthful and sustainable.

In essence, everyone today is involved in a culture change involving a new set of realizations about the effects of our own fabrications and activities and about our dependence on a healthy environment. What seemed innocent or benign in the past is now known not to be so. Treating our commons - the air and water and natural systems - as infinitely capable of absorbing insult no longer works. The human body, it turns out, can be very sensitive to chemicals that it has not evolved or adapted to, and the same holds true for all the living systems with which we share this planet.

What this all means is that building managers and cleaning services must adapt to the new realizations or they will find themselves endangered or disregarded. As with all change, there is great opportunity and promise, as well as risk.

Stephen Ashkin: Green cleaning is simply a different way to think about cleaning. It asks some fundamental issues about the mission of the building and why we are cleaning. It designs cleaning in a way that creates the healthiest environment possible for the occupants and defines success based on the mission of the organization and what the occupants are tasked with. Thus, green cleaning is different for hospitals which measures success in terms of health outcomes, compared to schools which measures success in terms of student performance on standardized tests, compared to a commercial building which might measure success in terms of productivity and quality, and so on.

As a result, green cleaning affects cleaning personnel, manufacturers, facility designers, architects and others differently depending on the role they play and how that role affects the occupants. Green cleaning might require more cleaning or specialize cleaning strategies used by cleaning personnel around sensitive or vulnerable occupants. For example, this might mean that the cleaning personnel may need to clean more thoroughly or frequently, or change their cleaning schedules to clean some areas earlier in their shifts to increase the time for the air to be flushed before occupants return. It might also mean that more cleaning will be done during the day to reduce the energy requirements to light a building when the building is being cleaned at night.

For the manufacturer, green cleaning may require them to redesign their products to reduce exposures to the occupants and cleaning personnel when the product is being used. It might also mean changing the materials from which the product itself is made to reduce environmental impacts. We are also observing redesigns using more recycled materials, reducing energy and water consumption, and being quieter to operate and more ergonomic for the user.

As cleaning organizations and manufacturers embrace green cleaning, we are seeing the impact on facility managers being reduced. However, at the current time it will take effort by facility managers to sort through the claims and "greenwash" to make sure they are implementing hopefully what we describe as a "dark green" program. But as time goes forward, it is becoming easier for facility managers, and we believe green cleaning will someday be described as simple best practices.

ICS: What does the idea of "green cleaning" really encompass?
AW: Green cleaning means that a building area is cleaned in such a way as to promote human health and environmental health as much as possible. Green cleaning involves using environmentally responsible chemicals, supplies, equipment, and procedures, and it requires thorough and continuing training of staff and clear communication of goals and methods to both staff and clients.

Cleaning experts are quick to point out that it is not sufficient to have the right chemicals or the appropriate procedures to achieve the best, most healthful cleaning. These and other elements must all be involved in a green cleaning program. For example, certified green cleaning chemicals are a good start, but if they are misused or applied with the wrong procedures, their benefits may be compromised or even vitiated. Thus, the "Pennsylvania Green Building Operation and Maintenance Manual," which Green Seal developed for the Commonwealth, contains sections on both cleaning products and cleaning procedures.

Green cleaning has become of such importance in the building industry that Green Seal decided to develop an environmental standard for it. The standard, which is in the early stages of development, will focus on all the aspects mentioned above and will be targeted to cleaning service providers, primarily in the commercial sector, both contractors and in-house.

The purpose of the standard is to identify leadership levels in cleaning from an environmental perspective. The standard may thus be used by cleaning service providers as a target for them to achieve; by users as a guideline by which they can specify the desired services; and by Green Seal as a basis for certifying cleaning service providers.

SA: The simplest definition of green cleaning is cleaning that protects health without harming the environment. Thus, we want to look for opportunities to reduce the environmental and health impacts of the various products used by the cleaning industry. But while replacing products is a good first step, green cleaning goes much further as it also addresses how the products are used, appropriate training and staffing levels, as well as stewardship and occupant responsibility to create the healthiest building possible. And finally, green cleaning recognizes that all buildings and building occupants are different. Thus a green cleaning program for an aging and overcrowded elementary school might be different compared to one for a modern, well functioning commercial office building occupied by healthy adults.

As we move forward, we are also beginning to more fully integrate green cleaning into the general discussion of sustainability and the concept of the triple bottom-line (environmental, economic and social impacts) without which an endeavor cannot be truly sustainable.

In the cleaning industry we have become aware of opportunity to reduce environmental impacts simply because the industry is so large and consumes billions of pounds annually of both cleaning chemicals and janitorial paper products. And surely the cleaning industry comprehends that green cleaning has to make economic sense, otherwise companies cannot remain in business. But the newest component we are introducing is the need to provide for our workers many of which work part-time, paid minimum wage and receive no benefits.

ICS: How do environmental products compare to traditional products as far as effectiveness?
AW: Environmentally responsible products can be as effective as, or even more effective than, conventional products, without all the questionable chemicals or ingredients often used in the latter. In fact, it is important to make clear to manufacturers, formulators, and product designers that green products must generally be made to function at a par with conventional products, otherwise they will not ultimately be accepted in the marketplace.

We find that in most cases, well-designed green products do perform as well as or better than their conventional counterparts. In fact, one long-time manufacturer of cleaning chemicals told us that the changes they needed to make to their basic products to meet the Green Seal standard actually improved the effectiveness of the products. It is very important that green products perform well, because otherwise the entire movement of greening the economy, and greening the cleaning industry in particular, may be in jeopardy.

Green Seal's environmental standards ensure proper performance by including functional performance criteria along with environmental performance criteria. The former are based on accepted methods of ISO or ASTM and typically cover the major functions or characteristics of the product category. For example, Green Seal's Environmental Standard for Industrial and Institutional Cleaners, GS-37, requires that cleaners meet criteria for soil removal and other relevant parameters (such as streaking for glass cleaners or re-soiling resistance for carpet cleaners).

There are a few areas where technologies are changing rapidly and it is not clear whether the new green versions will yet perform at the same level as the old ones under more extreme conditions. One prominent example of this is floor finishes, which have been dominated in recent decades by zinc cross-linked polymers that have been developed to be durable under heavy traffic and require infrequent stripping. There are lots of opinions and perceptions, both pro and con, about whether the newer zinc-free finishes are as durable, but studies are being conducted now to help answer this question. In any case, Green Seal's Environmental Standard for Floor-Care Products (GS-40) requires any certified finish to resist soil and detergent at a high level using the standard ASTM test methods.

SA: If I were answering this question five years ago, I would have had to answer differently than I do today. Five years ago green products either didn't work as well as traditional products, or they cost more for the same level of performance.

Today, this is generally no longer the case especially for green-cleaning chemicals. Due to the growth in demand for green cleaners, manufacturers are making a lot more reducing their cost to manufacture and the competition has driven prices down, plus the technology itself has improved. So today, green products will meet your performance requirements. But beware, you can still find "green" products that don't perform well, but it's not because they're green.

We have found that some janitorial equipment, such as vacuum cleaners, may cost more. But typically the "green" equipment is more durable and, when the added price is amortized over the life of the equipment, it is no more expensive than the traditional counterpart. And the "green" equipment works better, too.

Unfortunately, the one place you may find higher prices for the same quality is when buying recycled janitorial paper products. In this case, we typically need to find ways to reduce consumption to offset the higher prices. Often this can be done by replacing C-fold and multi-fold hand towel dispensers with large rolls dispensed from touch-free dispensers, and by replacing single-roll toilet tissue dispensers with dispensers that hold multiple rolls and which control the amount of paper dispensed.

ICS: Does a "green" cleaning approach cost the professional cleaner more, both in time and money?
AW: Green cleaning is not necessarily more costly or time-consuming, and it may, in fact, be quite the opposite. We know of many institutions, including ones we have worked with, that stockpiled lots of chemicals and equipment that were rarely used. This is typical of most conventional cleaning programs, and it is extremely wasteful. Poorly managed stockrooms, where products are not organized or labeled properly, can also lead to serious instances of product misuse, which may result in accidents and injuries as well as waste.

Lack of proper procedures or the training to inculcate them can also cause waste. Improper cleaning may lead to complaints and the need to re-do the job. Improper procedures can directly cause waste of products. In one case, a hotel we worked with was using its conventional cleaning chemicals at full strength rather than at the recommended dilution; no wonder they didn't like the substitute green cleaners, which were given to workers at the proper dilution! If concentrates are used as is, the waste can be considerable - not to mention the potential effect on human health and environment.

An area of cleaning where this issue often arises is disinfection. Proper disinfection first requires proper cleaning of the surface, then the application of the disinfectant. But this involves two steps and wait time, and is therefore often done together. The result, however, may not be effective in either cleaning or disinfecting.

Overall, green cleaning is more effective in terms of the amount of products and equipment used and the effect on people's health and the environment. Even if some procedures take longer or some products need more time to be effective, expenditures in time and money are more than compensated by the elimination of unnecessary procedures and products and the superior design of many products. Furthermore, in a competitive industry like the janitorial one, products generally have to be comparable in cost.

SA: It really depends on what they are currently doing. Generally we say that if the contractor is doing a good job, using quality products, training their people, etc., then the cost of switching to green cleaning is minimal, and sometimes can save them money.

However, in some cases because green cleaning tries to focus on outcomes - creating a healthy building may actually require more cleaning and thus could be more costly. Regrettably, we find many buildings that are filthy simply because cleaning budgets have been cut and correcting this will require more time and money.

When costs do become an issue, we typically recommend that the cleaning contractors begin with the proverbial "low-hanging fruit," such as switching chemicals and equipment. We encourage people, both cleaning contractors and building managers that green cleaning is a journey, and it is valuable to get started and they can continue to upgrade and improve the program as it goes forward to eliminate costs as a barrier to getting started.

ICS: What are the regulations or laws currently in place that spell out what, exactly, qualifies as a "green" cleaning product?
AW: Green Seal works in the realm of "beyond compliance;" that is, what manufacturers and users can do to help improve health and environment beyond what the law requires. We will therefore leave it to government agencies, lawyers, and consultants to delineate any legal requirements related to this area. Our sense is that qualifications for green cleaning products or any other green products are generally not mandated by government for the private sector, except in the case of organic foods. On the other hand, private-sector environmental standards such as those of Green Seal are often used by institutions, both public and private, in their bid specifications for cleaning.

An important legal aspect that does relate to our work and green cleaning products concerns the validity of claims made for the environmental advantages of a product. Under the Federal truth-in-advertising law and in particular the "Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims" of the Federal Trade Commission, anyone who makes an environmental claim for a product must be able to substantiate it, and the claim must be relevant, meaningful, and not misleading. That is why all Green Seal-certified products must meet strict labeling requirements based on the standard to which they are certified.

SA: There are no federal regulations or laws currently defining green products, although numerous federal agencies, states, local governments, schools, private industry, NGOs like the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED for Existing Buildings Rating System, Hospitals for a Healthy Environment and more have integrated "green" requirements into the purchasing of cleaning products and services.

These organizations have typically adopted standards such as Green Seal's Standard for Institutional and Industrial Cleaning Products (GS-37), the California Code of Regulations limiting VOCs for other cleaning products not covered by Green Seal, the EPA's Comprehensive Procurement Guidelines which addresses recycled content for janitorial paper products and plastic trashcan liners, and the Carpet and Rug Institute's Green Label Program for vacuum cleaners.

In addition, we are looking to take additional measures to raise the bar of existing standards, develop new standards for product categories not currently covered, and to make it easier for both building owners, product manufacturers and cleaning contractors to implement green cleaning.

ICS: What advantages are there for the cleaning professional who takes the "green" approach in his or her business?
AW: More and more institutions, building owners, and facility managers are embracing green cleaning and green facilities management. As the incidence of asthma and other respiratory diseases rises, as sick building syndrome and chemical sensitivity among occupants continue to grow, those responsible for managing facilities realize that green cleaning is the way of the future. They know it is the right thing to do, and they also realize that it is a common-sense way to avoid harm and reduce the liabilities from causing it, inadvertently or not.

For this reason, forward-looking cleaning services and BSCs are incorporating green cleaning programs in their offerings. They are even contemplating switching all their programs to being green. Whatever their motives, this is smart business, since we are just at the beginning of a major transformation of cleaning into a more healthful, environmentally responsible profession.

The advantages for cleaning professionals who embrace green cleaning are therefore simply that they will remain competitive and even gain a significant edge over others who do not take green cleaning seriously. The disadvantage for the latter is that they may very well go out of business in the not-too-distant future.

SA: The cleaning business is often looked at as a commodity, because the perception is that everyone offers exactly the same thing. As a result, price becomes the only differentiator. Thus, green cleaning can help a cleaning contractor differentiate from their competitors and gain more business.

Cleaning contractors benefit from green cleaning in other ways as well. For example, one of the biggest costs to a cleaning organization is the cost of insurance due to their workers exposure to toxic chemicals, and green cleaning can indirectly reduce that cost. In addition, green cleaning can help in a number of other areas such as reducing turnover and subsequently reducing hiring and training costs. And often we find that when turnover and absenteeism is reduced, the cleaning contractor is able to provide a better and more consistent level of service that helps retain their existing customers which has enormous positive advantages for the company. Thus, green cleaning can help a cleaning contractor not only improve their sales, but by reducing their costs can further improve their profitability.

Of course you've noticed that the previously discussed benefits are all economic in nature, as is appropriate for a business. But in addition to these benefits, it really is the "right thing to do" to reduce the occupational exposures to our workers, some of which are using toxic products 8 hours per day, year after year.

ICS: What are the advantages for the building occupants to have their building maintained with environmental products?
AW: Phrased somewhat differently, the advantages for building occupants to have their building cleaned in an environmentally responsible way - using not only green products but green procedures, equipment, etc. - are that they will have a more healthful environment in which to work and ultimately a more sustainable environment on which all our lives depend.

Green cleaning uses products and procedures that eschew toxic ingredients that can linger in the building, such as carcinogens, reproductive toxins, mutagens, respiratory irritants, endocrine disruptors, etc., and ingredients that can harm the outside environment, such as persistent toxins, non-biodegradable substances, and eutrophic pollutants (such as phosphates). All these can be found in conventional cleaning product formulations or may be used in manufacturing conventional supplies such as paper tissue. Similarly, green cleaning procedures ensure that surfaces and areas are cleaned properly and that germs, bacteria, and mold are not just re-distributed or even propagated.

SA: It is important to keep in mind that the role of cleaning in general is to remove contaminants within a building and to protect public health. Normally occurring contaminants such as mold, bacteria and viruses can have serious health consequences, especially to sensitive or vulnerable occupants (i.e. woman who are pregnant or nursing, young children, those with existing health conditions, etc.). Furthermore, many occupants are sensitive to contaminants indoors such as dust, VOCs, pesticides and even the cleaning products themselves.

Green cleaning can help reduce the exposures, which in turn can improve health and performance. This can be achieved by reducing the contaminants through more thorough cleaning, as well as by eliminating the source of contaminants that the cleaning people may unintentionally be introducing inside the building every night while cleaning.

While the scientific studies directly linking cleaning to improved occupant performance are still limited, there is a growing body of evidence that cleaning improves health outcomes in our hospitals, student performance on standardized test scores in our schools, and occupant productivity and quality in our commercial office space. And if it doesn't cost any additional money, why would building managers and cleaning contractors implement it?

And of course long term, reducing the toxicity of the products from the cleaning industry, using products derived from rapidly renewable resources, reducing water and energy consumption resulting from cleaning operations will benefit all of us.

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