A Guide to Green Cleaners

Dec. 6, 2011
Green cleaners are effective, cost-efficient, and come with a host of secondary benefits.

Orange, lemon, thyme, and coconut. You can find these ingredients at the grocery store, but they’re also used in green cleaners.

The benefits of non-toxic cleaners abound, but the variety of product formulas can make it difficult to select the right ones. Wash away confusion with these guidelines.

What to Look For
Arm yourself with some basic knowledge before switching products. Don’t take terms such as natural or eco-safe at face value without third-party certification. Instead, choose cleaners with bio-based ingredients, low toxicity levels, and concentrated formulas.

“Look for products that are 95-99% naturally derived from renewable and biodegradable resources, dermatologist approved, and never tested on animals,” recommends Lynda Lurie, marking manager for Clorox Professional Products Company.

“Be sure that they offer sustainable packaging, a closed-loop dispensing system, and full ingredient transparency.”

Also stay away from formulas that have known carcinogens, don’t biodegrade, cause asthma, or are highly volatile.

Remember that one green ingredient doesn’t mean the entire product is safe. “You must look at both individual ingredients and the product as a whole,” cautions Roger McFadden, vice president of Staples. The use of citric acid alone, for example, doesn’t counter other harmful chemicals used.

Once selected, green cleaners can replace virtually all of your conventional cleaners, but examine labels to confirm they can be used in the same applications and provide the same performance as the ones you replaced.

Keep in mind that there are areas where the risk of transmission or the presence of pathogens cannot be addressed by green agents, such as a hospital operating room or a blood spill in a school. Your best defense, argues McFadden, is to take a proactive stance against such situations by reducing their likelihood.

The Problem with Disinfectants
Viable alternatives to disinfectants are problematic. “The fundamental purpose of a disinfectant is to kill an organic compound,” explains McFadden. “That violates the very first principle of a green product – to move to a non-toxic solution.”

The EPA requires most disinfectants to be registered as pesticides. While this ensures the product’s efficacy is verified, comparative claims can’t be made within this chemical designation.

Fortunately, minimal-risk pesticides are exempt. These compounds are derived from natural materials, such as thymol, citric and lactic acid, and hydrogen peroxide.

It’s critical to follow the directions when using any sanitizer. “Many disinfectants require the surface to be cleaned before application to work properly,” says Cheryl Baldwin, vice president of Green Seal.

Case in point: hybrid cleaner-disinfectants are often misused. These dual products require the formula to be left on a surface for up to 10 minutes – a step often skipped. Not only does this render the product ineffective, but you’re wasting money by only using one of the formula’s properties.

Instead, use a two-step approach of cleaning combined with targeted disinfecting. “By adopting the mentality of ‘go green where you can, disinfect where you must,’ facility managers can feel good about using green products for cleaning and be assured that their facility is safe against superbugs and viruses,” Lurie says.

The Big Picture
It’s a misconception that green cleaners are more expensive. After accounting for dilution rates and price per pound, sustainable products often come out the same or even cheaper than conventional options.

Green chemicals also offer these secondary benefits:

  • Workers are less likely to sustain an injury or develop a respiratory condition.
  • “Green products are often designed to be just as effective in tap water as they are in warm water,” says McFadden, which ultimately saves energy.
  • Green cleaners encourage other eco-friendly practices, such as using microfiber cloths and mops.
  • You have to pay a landfill to dispose of old cleaning chemicals, but green cleaners are often biodegradable and sewer-friendly.
  • You can improve IAQ with sustainable cleaners.

“Using naturally derived products may seem like a small step,” says Lurie, “but businesses can receive measurable financial gains due to improved employee productivity and retention, as well as lower operating costs and obtain certain government incentives.”

Jennie Morton ([email protected]) is associate editor of BUILDINGS.

About the Author

Jennie Morton

A former BUILDINGS editor, Jennie Morton is a freelance writer specializing in commercial architecture, IoT and proptech.

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