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Developing a Successful Sustainable Cleaning Program: Strategies for Creating an Eco-Conscious Organization

Written by  Roger McFadden


Maximizing sustainability has become a primary objective of facility maintenance programs in recent years—and for good reason. Sustainable products and techniques make sense for the environment and for business. Facilities and employees benefit from enhanced indoor environmental and air quality, reduced exposure to toxins and harmful chemicals, and waste reduction.

Sustainable environments, by association, increase employee productivity, create a progressive impact on the planet, and engender an affirmative impression of the company in the private and public spheres.

Bucking a common misconception, facility managers are achieving the same level of cleanliness with sustainable products as with traditional cleaning products for most tasks. Organizations often use products that are not designed to fit the specific cleaning requirements of a particular job and are stronger and more toxic than necessary. Additionally, many people subscribe to the notion that operating sustainably is expensive, but a growing number of organizations adopting environmentally preferable practices have gained the benefits of sustainable products without cost increases. Some organizations have actually reported substantial cost reductions when they transition to more sustainable products and processes. There are many affordable, effective, and sustainable cleaning product options that are available to facility managers today. Cost effectiveness should not be a deterrent to a shift in office maintenance practices.

Now is the time to reevaluate current cleaning practices and develop a successful sustainability program. The article includes several strategies intended to help facility managers create a more eco-conscious organization.

Familiarize Yourself with Sustainability

Many people possess a working knowledge of sustainability without truly grasping its application to a business setting. Start by defining sustainability as it relates to your organization. Next, research other organizations with similar office layouts that have embraced environmentally conscious programs and develop a thorough understanding of and passion for sustainability in your workplace. Facility managers should be well versed in the value and benefits of a sustainability program, so they can effectively communicate this information to other employees.

Evaluate Your Workspace and Current Cleaning Program

Take time to assess your facility and current cleaning program to identify needs, goals, opportunities, and develop a work plan. This examination and evaluation should include the following:

• Categorize and prioritize zones in your facility: Some locations encounter more traffic and human contact than others and thus require more extensive cleaning. Make a note of the areas that require the most cleaning, and distribute labor hours appropriately.

• Develop a scope of work: Outline what your cleaning needs are for specific areas of your building and how frequently they need to be cleaned. Be explicit in articulating your criteria for an acceptable level of cleanliness and sustainability.

• Appropriately handle the transition to new products and systems: Assess your current cleaning chemicals and identify what products need to go, safely dispose of them, and recycle when applicable. Work with the custodial staff to label and sort correctly. Through proper labeling, you can avoid misplacement and product misuse.

Encourage Internal Input and Support Before Implementation

Once you’ve evaluated your workspace, generate input from employees in order to understand the needs of the facility. The people who work in the office everyday inevitably have a strong knowledge of the work environment and how the indoor environmental air quality affects them and can inform your decisions. Additionally, conversing with corporate decision makers will help you understand product procurement issues and budgetary concerns. This will help alleviate apprehension and extol the advantages of a conversion to sustainability. Finally, connect your sustainability strategy to a business opportunity. This will create a spark within the organization that will stimulate more support for your program.

Coach and Communicate

An efficient and effective eco-conscious cleaning program requires a well-trained and committed staff. Conduct training sessions for your entire workforce, including distinct sessions for janitorial staff and non-janitorial staff. Provide instructions on how to use new products and solutions, offering any necessary critique while overseeing your staff. In the event that an employee speaks English as a second language, it’s important to present training materials in multiple languages.

Through conversations with office supervisors, target employees with a particular passion for environmentally conscious solutions and designate them as champions who actively support and promote the sustainability program. These sustainability champions can get other employees excited about sustainability and serve as an additional resource for ensuring compliance with healthier office practices and standards.

Regularly update the management team and key stakeholders on your drive toward sustainability. They have an interest in tracking the environmental and wellness improvements you have implemented and progress you have made.

Make Sustainability Seamless and Accessible

Most employees have enough work to consume their busy schedules without having to worry about going out of their way to be eco-friendly. To help create a sustainable culture, you should strive to make sustainable practices seamless and appealing to employees. Make recycling easy by installing recycle bins at each desk, eating area, and high foot-traffic locations.

In addition, because the vast majority of workers eat lunch at their desks, be sure to encourage regular desk cleaning and hand sanitizing. Although many employees eat lunch while doing work due to busy schedules, people need mental health breaks to decompress and restore productivity levels. Set aside cafeteria space and encourage employees to move around for lunch. Be sure to make cleaning tools, such as sanitizing wipes and supply tissues, easily accessible throughout the office for use by office staff. Emphasize and reinforce the importance of frequent hand washing to individual and facility overall health and wellness.

For a more creative approach, consider designing inter-office competitions that promote sustainable practices. With management permission and support, provide incentive by rewarding staff for meeting target goals. Likewise, set office-wide goals periodically. You should start small by setting an initial goal that you can reasonably achieve, such as replacing non-compliant cleaning products with healthy solutions. To further ensure your commitment to sustainability, consider completing a scorecard each month to measure the percentage of sustainable products purchased in your department. Celebrate short-term accomplishments and reinforce long-term goals.

Purchase Sustainable Products

Many cleaning products contain harmful substances, and it can be difficult to determine which ones to purchase and which to avoid without the proper knowledge base. When selecting environmentally preferable cleaning products, keep an eye out for those that are Green Seal or the EPA’s Design for the Environment (DfE) certified, which means that they have successfully met specific standards. Both the Green Seal and DfE logos should be clearly displayed on the product label. Do not be afraid to ask suppliers for full transparency about the chemicals in their products. If they refuse to tell you, ask them to provide you with products that have been certified by a credible, independent, third-party organization like Green Seal or EPA DfE.

To protect building occupants, keep an eye out for labels that can include caution statements such as “may cause severe eye irritation,” “may cause irritation of nose, throat and lungs,” or “requires goggles, respiratory protection and/or impervious gloves.” People suffering from asthma or other respiratory ailments often react negatively to products that contain volatile substances. Safer chemical products can reduce absenteeism and long-term health effects compared to cleaning products that contain chemicals of known concern.

Indoor air quality can be improved by using safer cleaning products and equipment. For example, when sifting through the best options for carpet care, consider selecting HEPA-filtered backpack vacuums. To qualify as a HEPA filter, an air purifier must capture airborne particles as small as 0.3 micrometers in diameter, a size 100 times smaller than a normal HEPA filter. As a result, they improve air quality and reduce the risk of illness.

Always Look to Innovate

Technology is constantly evolving in many diverse industries, including maintenance. A particularly innovative and effective invention to consider is a touch-free system for restrooms whereby the machine cleans the space automatically while protecting the custodial staff from coming in contact with potentially hazardous substances. Restroom soap dispensers have also evolved dramatically. Facility managers often favor bulk liquid soap dispensers, but they require regular sanitizing to prevent the spread of mold and develop leaks easily, causing unsightly drips that require extra labor to clean. Automatic, foaming, sealed soap systems are a better alternative because they offer a more sanitary, drip-free solution.

These strategies will provide you with the necessary basis for establishing a sustainable workplace. Commit yourself to your craft and do not become complacent, because there is no limit to what you can achieve with your leadership, commitment and sustainable facility!

Roger McFadden, vice president and senior scientist for Staples, Inc., is a nationally recognized leader in the fields of green cleaning products and ecological sustainability. As the creator of Staples exclusive line of Sustainable Earth cleaning products, Roger has developed the commercial cleaning industry’s most stringent standards for evaluating environmental, health, and safety impacts of cleaning products. Roger is a charter member of the Green Chemistry Commerce Council and currently chairs a committee to advance green chemistry and the EPA design for the environment formulator initiatives. He is also a frequent speaker on environmental, safety and health topics to health care organizations, educational institutions, public agencies, and private corporations.


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