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Evolving from Green Cleaning to Sustainable Green Cleaning

Written by  Stephen Ashkin


Get ready for cleaning in the 21st century -  When the green cleaning movement first started to take hold in the professional cleaning industry 15 to 20 years ago, the key impetus was to protect human health. It was clear that many of the chemicals, tools, and equipment we used to perform cleaning tasks—while they may be effective—could also have a negative impact on human health and the indoor environment. The initial goal of green cleaning was largely aimed at reducing this impact.

Today, green cleaning involves much more. Instead of cleaning only to protect human health and the indoor environment—as important as this is—we are also cleaning to protect our air and water as well as to promote sustainability. Many facilities that have undertaken this next step in green cleaning are reporting several benefits, such as increased cost savings, greater efficiencies, and improved worker productivity.

To get these benefits, these facilities are beginning what we call “sustainable green cleaning programs.” These programs are designed to enhance the efficiency of green cleaning tools, chemicals, and equipment as well as to make cleaning tasks healthier and much more environmentally sustainable. A good example of this—and one BSCs can learn from—is a program initiated at Boston University (BU) in the 1990s.

Cleaning command centers
BU employs approximately 400 cleaning workers responsible for more than 300 buildings. In the 1990s, the university set up a sustainable cleaning program, which has evolved over the years. It was first designed as a way to address concerns about custodial worker safety; to increase efficiencies, reduce costs, and improve worker productivity among custodial workers; and to protect those using and working in campus buildings.

When beginning a green cleaning program, many administrators and custodial workers first evaluate the cleaning chemicals used in the facility, determining how many and which specifically can be eliminated or replaced with green chemical alternatives. This was not the case at BU. Instead, the first step the university took was to address the sustainability of the equipment used for cleaning by transferring from traditional floorcare equipment used for stripping floors—which typically requires considerable amounts of powerful and potentially harmful chemicals—to chemical-free floor cleaning systems. The process eliminated the chemicals needed for stripping, and according to university administrators, reduced cleaning times as well.

The next step in the initiative did address cleaning chemicals. With so many buildings and such a large cleaning staff, the university created “cleaning chemical command centers” to reduce chemical use by more precisely controlling the amounts and types of chemicals being used and where, while also minimizing waste. The command centers were designed to dilute chemicals per manufacturer’s instructions, which is typically a key part of green cleaning program. Having this dilution process centrally located and controlled also helped lower the chances of chemical-related injuries.

To further minimize waste and packaging materials, while promoting sustainability by reducing the need to transport as many cleaning chemicals to the campus, the university began purchasing chemicals in concentrated amounts in large containers. By incorporating these steps and the command centers, the university found they were able to eliminate more than 75 percent of the chemicals used to clean the facility and replace them with green-certified products from organizations such as UL/Environment and Green Seal™.

Other steps BU undertook include the following:

• The university began evaluating cleaning processes to determine whether greener and more sustainable practices could be implemented. Administrators were a bit ahead of the curve in evaluating cleaning processes because it is now believed that the use of green cleaning tools and equipment is one thing, but to also use them in both a green and sustainable manner is another issue entirely. This is why, for instance, ISSA, the worldwide cleaning association, has developed the Cleaning Industry Management Standard–Green Building (CIMS–GB) program. The aim of this program is to assist cleaning professionals or organizations in developing and delivering a comprehensive green cleaning program based on specific cleaning methods, systems, and criteria.

• While evaluating cleaning processes, university administrators and cleaning professionals decided to begin using only what they determined were effective microfiber cleaning cloths. According to the university, using microfiber products rather than conventional cleaning clothes is also more sustainable because the microfiber can be washed and reused hundreds of times.*

• Along with microfiber cleaning cloths, administrators selected microfiber mop heads. According to tests by the university, traditional cotton (spaghetti) mops spread bacteria. And regarding effectiveness, microfiber mop heads remove as much as 60-percent more soil than conventional mops and also reduce the amount of water and chemicals needed, according to the university.**

• Administrators implemented a color-coding system to help prevent cross contamination. While many facilities now use color-coding systems to help make it easy for staff to know which cleaning cloths and products are to be used where, such a system also can help reduce waste and minimize chemical use. • A sustainable purchasing policy was begun and is designed to protect human health as well as reduce the overall environmental impact of the school’s more than 300 buildings.

• Source-control programs were started. Specifically, this refers to “permanent” entryway matting systems along with outdoor cleaning programs designed to clean exterior walkways. The belief here is that the less soil tracked into campus buildings, the less chemical and cleaning will be required in those buildings.

• Staff training along with “continuous improvement” programs were started to teach custodial workers the proper use of cleaning chemicals and advanced cleaning methods, recycling procedures, and proper ways to dispose of cleaning chemicals, tools, and equipment.

Program benefits
The university reports that the success of its sustainable green cleaning program has been significant and that it is now being rolled out in more and more facilities on the campus. While they did not offer specifics, university officials say they believe they have derived benefits from the program including the following:

• Improved air quality
• Greater protection of human health for those using the campus and areas surrounding the campus
• Reduced operating costs
• Reduced energy and water use
• Reduced material consumption and packaging waste
• Reduced hazardous waterborne and solid waste entering waterways (including lead, mercury, chromium, cadmium, and beryllium)
• Enhanced recycling and increased demand for recycled materials

Cleaning contractors may think that what BU is doing can only happen at a major university that’s focused on sustainability and that it is unlikely to spread to other schools, offices, and smaller facilities. However, astute cleaning contractors know this is already happening. What’s more, they see that some customers and potential customers are now expecting their vendors, including cleaning contractors, to implement sustainable practices in their own business operations. This is the beginning of a transformation in the professional cleaning industry that we can expect to grow in the 21st century. And, as with so much in our world today, expect this to move much faster than expected. For cleaning contractors, to paraphrase an old adage, it will be the early bird that is most likely to get the worm.

*Microfiber is made of fibers that are 100 times thinner than a human hair. The fibers are woven together and are effective at removing and picking up soils because they are so fine. The result typically is more effective cleaning especially on surfaces that have pores. Further, because the fibers are partially made of nylon, they attract and trap dirt and dust.

**Tests by the university found that by using four gallons of mopping solution, a microfiber mop can clean 1500-1800 square feet, while a conventional mop can clean only 500-700 square feet.

Stephen AshkinStephen P. Ashkin is Executive Director of the Green Cleaning Network a not-for-profit organization dedicated to educating building owners and suppliers about green cleaning, and president of The Ashkin Group a consulting firm specializing in greening the cleaning industry. He is considered the “father of green cleaning” and is coauthor of both The Business of Green Cleaning and Green Cleaning for Dummies. He may be reached via his company website, www.ashkingroup.com


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