How to Get a Greener Clean

Feb. 1, 2008

Green cleaning requires use of environmentally friendly cleaning agents, high-performance cleaning equipment, and efficient processes

Floors are buffed. Dust is trapped. Surfaces sparkle. What else could you ask of your janitorial crew? If you've adopted environmentally friendly operations, then the answer is simple: You should be asking for a greener clean. "The definition we use [for green cleaning] is, ‘effective cleaning that protects health without harming the environment,' " says George Lohnes, vice president, marketing, at Newton, MA-based UGL Unicco.

Most experts estimate green cleaning to be cost neutral when compared to traditional methods. "If you're on fairly normal specifications, it shouldn't cost any more," says Barbara Whitstone, senior vice president, business development, CleanPower, Milwaukee, WI.

A green cleaning program involves three things:

  1. Replacement of traditional cleaning agents with environmentally friendly alternatives. 
  2. Equipment that is more efficient, quieter, and more effective in removing contaminants from the indoor environment. 
  3. Processes that minimize the use of water and energy, and promote healthy indoor air quality, all while providing a high level of cleanliness.

A holistic approach is best. "If you zero in on one item, you may very well miss others. And, obviously, at the end of the day, you still have to make sure you have a clean facility," explains Roger Peterson, regional vice president, ARAMARK, Philadelphia.

If your impressions of green cleaning were formed a few years ago, it may be time to give the practice a second chance. Times have changed: You don't have to settle for substandard performance when green cleaning is put to use. In fact, "it should be cleaner," says Whitstone.

"The products that came out 2 or 3 years ago were not as good as the ones that are out there today in terms of quality or cost competitiveness," says Peterson. Make sure the product has been put through rigorous testing. Organizations like the Marietta, GA-based GREENGUARD Environmental Institute and Washington, D.C.-based Green Seal Inc. provide thirdparty certification of green cleaners. Green Seal's GS-37 (for industrial and institutional general-purpose cleaners) and GS-40 (for industrial and institutional floor-care products) test cleaners on many criteria, including toxicity, corrosiveness, skin sensitization, impact on air quality, and use of animal testing, to name a few.

Just like cleaners, some equipment is certified by third party organizations. One example of this is the Dalton, GAbased Carpet and Rug Institute's Seal of Approval/Green Label certification for vacuums. Tests gauge performance based on soil removal, dust containment, and carpet-texture retention.

For other equipment recommendations, consider using the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED for Existing Building (LEED-EB) guidelines. Regardless of whether certification is an aspiration, LEED-EB provides advice on what equipment (and what equipment features) are desirable for green cleaning.

"The most difficult aspect [of green cleaning] is figuring out operational changes," says Lohnes. If you're stumped, investigate the following strategies: 

  • Change how you apply chemicals. "As opposed to using a spray bottle that might atomize chemicals and get them airborne, work from a bucket, spray the cleaning agent directly onto a cloth, or use a coarse sprayer application," explains John Kennedy, vice president, operations support, UGL Unicco. 
  • Focus on points of infiltration or generation, where soiling is most likely to occur. Many cleaning contracts specify a high level and frequency of dusting and vacuuming in executive suites instead of in photocopy rooms or the shipping dock. "The heaviest cleaning and the highest frequency of services should be for those areas where contaminants enter or are generated within the facility," says Kennedy. To stop dirt in its tracks, use entryway mats. "You should really have 10-foot falls, which is [approximately] 25 or 30 feet of matting," says Whitstone. 
  • Weigh daytime vs. nighttime cleaning. Because lights don't have to be left on at night for janitorial crews, daytime cleaning offers some energy savings; however, it's not right for every building. Daytime cleaning can be problematic, creating the potential for slip and fall hazards. "A lot of companies that are doing daytime cleaning aren't using true vacuum cleaners because of the noise - they're using hokies or carpet sweepers," says Whitstone. Carefully weigh the advantages and disadvantages before making a decision.

Jana J. Madsen ([email protected]) is managing editor at Buildings magazine.

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