Some people following the green cleaning movement that has taken center stage in the North American cleaning industry are actually quite surprised it is happening now and coming on so strong. About 30 years ago, many of the advocates for green cleaning and the use of environmentally preferable cleaning products - those used for general cleaning as well as floor and carpet care - believed that eventually federal (or other government entities) would need to step in and start mandating the use of these products.
After all, they thought, it was not until the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned DDT and other pesticides in the early 1970s that they were taken off the market. A few years later, the same agency started mandating that U.S. automakers install complex exhaust systems on their cars to help reduce smog in American cities. And after the 1972 oil crisis, the Fed stepped in again and demanded that all cars sold in the United States be more fuel-efficient.
These were difficult years, causing lots of strife and turmoil between government and industry as manufacturers were forced to meet the new mandates. As tough as these changes were, some green-cleaning advocates believed that the same course of action would need to be taken in order to promote the use of green cleaning and minimize the use of conventional cleaning chemicals and products that have a negative impact on human health and on the environment.
But they were wrong. Today, most advocates believe that the interest in green cleaning has been mostly customer-driven. Many customers, whether in private industry or public, now want green cleaning products used in their facilities. "We had been looking into green cleaning chemicals and products for awhile," says Cheryl Bradley, executive housekeeper of one of Vancouver, Canada's most prestigious hotels. "But now we have to. Many of our corporate clients insist that their guests and staff stay in ‘green' hotels, and some of our prospective clients also require this."
This means that as the customer turns green, astute carpet-cleaning professionals will need to adjust their carpet-cleaning systems, procedures, and practices to meet the new realities of the industry. However, unlike the situations automobile makers faced, this transfer to environmentally preferable cleaning products is proving to be much smoother, especially as the opportunities of green carpet cleaning become more evident and include benefits that extend beyond just a safer environment.
Conventional Carpet-Cleaning Chemicals
Although a green carpet-cleaning program involves several components, including the type of extractors used and the efficiency of the machines, it is chemicals that are coming under some of the greatest scrutiny. Thousands of square feet of carpeting are cleaned every day in North America with few health problems reported, but over the past 20 years, several studies linking the use of carpet-cleaning compounds to respiratory irritation and asthma have been published.
According to one report, carpet cleaners were called in to clean an excessively soiled carpet in an office building. They used undiluted cleaning chemicals to eradicate the stains, hoping to remove the excess chemical with rinsing and extraction. However, the next day virtually all the employees who worked in the facility suffered outbreaks of coughing, wheezing, respiratory irritation, and difficulty breathing.
In another outbreak, children in a day-care center experienced breathing difficulties after a carpet cleaning, even though the chemicals used had been properly mixed as per the manufacturer's instructions. And in still another case, technicians in a hospital clinic reported breathing difficulties and respiratory problems immediately after the carpets had been cleaned.
An investigation into all of these cases concluded that the conventional carpet-cleaning chemicals used were the chief culprits, adversely affecting the indoor environment and causing the illnesses and reactions. "Many conventional carpet cleaning chemicals are highly alkaline and have high VOCs (volatile organic compounds) along with some containing powerful odor eliminators and disinfectants," said Mike Sawchuk, vice president and general manager of Enviro-Solutions. "During application, these chemicals are injected into the carpet via high-pressure nozzles. Most of these chemicals are absorbed by the carpet or removed from the carpet via the extractor's vacuum process. But the remaining moisture - containing potentially harmful chemicals and ingredients - are released into the air two to 24 hours after the cleaning."
Sawchuk believes some of the problem has been minimized with the increased use of low-moisture carpet extractors that inject less water and chemical into carpet fibers. Additionally, he says because many carpet cleaners now "pre-spray" chemicals on carpets and then extract using only water, less chemical is used in the cleaning process, and using less chemical is usually more people and environmentally preferable.
"However, even with more advanced extractors and new cleaning procedures, many powerful cleaning compounds are still used in the carpet cleaning process," he says. "This is why we still hear of reactions and illnesses occurring after carpet cleaning and why customers are asking for safer chemicals that have less impact on the environment."
Certified Carpet-Cleaning Chemicals
The previously mentioned studies occurred before green, or at least green-certified, carpet-cleaning chemicals were available. As a result, the most carpet-cleaning professionals could do at that time to meet customer demands for safer cleaning chemicals was to reduce the amount used, make sure the carpets were adequately extracted, dry the carpets as quickly as possible, and keep rooms well ventilated. However, today there are green-certified carpet-cleaning chemicals available that are healthier to use for building occupants and the carpet-cleaning professional as well as the environment.
"The certification process is not only essential in helping to determine and select environmentally preferable carpet cleaning chemicals but one reason they are coming to market," said Scott McDougall, president of the EcoLogo program, a North American third-party certification organization.
McDougall explains that before recognized certification organizations such as EcoLogo were established, manufacturers had no parameters or guidelines as to what made a product environmentally preferable. "Some products were simply ‘self-declared' green, often with the manufacturer believing the claim to be true," he said. "But in many cases, the products were later determined not to be green or there was no substance to the claim in the first place."
To rectify the situation, EcoLogo, as well as similar independent organizations such as Green Seal and the Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI), test and evaluate, through the use of accredited laboratories, carpet-cleaning chemicals and other products. Once these products meet the organization's criteria to be environmentally preferable, on-site inspections are completed, and if approved, along with other measures, the product is deemed green.
This means that as long as the product is used per the manufacturer's instructions, it is safer to use; protects the health of users, building occupants, and the environment; performs as well as or better than similar conventional cleaning chemicals; and is cost competitive.
"It is an extensive evaluation process, but once it is completed and a product is certified, consumers can be assured the product is green and much safer," McDougall said. "This has not only helped provide guidelines for manufacturers, but all the homework and guesswork on selecting environmentally safe products has been eliminated."
Seeing Green in Green
"What we see happening in many segments of the jansan industry is that cleaning professionals, including carpet cleaners, are not only embracing green, they are using it as a marketing tool," Sawchuk said. "They have heard the customers' call and are answering it enthusiastically by using carpet products certified green by EcoLogo, Green Seal and CRI."
Another reason this is happening is not only to address customer demand, but also because carpet cleaning professionals view green carpet cleaning as a way to differentiate themselves from other contractors. They are also encouraged to go green because working with safer cleaning chemicals can help minimize their worker and customer liability.
"Twelve years ago when I first got involved with green cleaning, I could only hope it would reach the interest and level it has today," Sawchuk says. "Certification programs have been established, manufacturers are rushing to develop green cleaning products, the customer wants green cleaning, and jansan professionals now see it as a way to bolster their businesses. I'm glad our industry has not been ‘regulated' into green cleaning but has embraced it as a winning scenario for everyone and the environment.