The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found that volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are found in many non-certified green cleaning products, can cause cancer in humans as well as a host of other health problems. In today’s “green” climate, however, there are safer, more efficient and environmentally preferable products to disinfect public spaces.
Why should I bother? By definition, green cleaning is applying environmentally preferable practices in a maintenance program. Part of this is using products that are certified green, meaning they are non-toxic, biodegradable and made from renewable resources.
There are two reasons to use green cleaning technology and practices:
• To drastically lower the health risks for users and people who come in contact with the cleaning products
• To reduce the agency’s impact on the environment.
Besides doing the right thing for the environment, your employing of green products is a way to set your business apart from others. According to a recent Harris poll on green behavior, 15 percent of Americans have patronized or avoided a business based on its environmental activities. This number likely will grow as green living becomes more embedded in society and our way of life.
How effective are green cleaning products? As with any product or cleaning strategy, whether it is green or traditional, it is primarily dependent on how it is applied. Many times green cleaning products do not have the toxic chemicals that instantly destroy anything in their path, so it is necessary to closely follow all manufacturers’ guidelines for application, diluting, pre-cleaning and storage.
A study is currently underway by the International Executive Housekeepers Association and the University of Massachusetts-Lowell’s Toxics Use Reduction Institute to test and validate green cleaning products. According to Jason Marshall, Laboratory Director for the Institute, the program is “not a certification or a standard; it’s a testing program aimed toward raising the environmental bar by encouraging manufacturers to produce products that are not only less toxic and safer, but that also offer optimal results in specific cleaning applications. It is designed to show that a green product has been tested on real-life soils and found to work–and work well.”
Does green cleaning have zero effect on the environment? It is not likely. Green products and practices only reduce the impact on the environment–at least for now. As much as a company may claim its products are environmentally friendly, biodegradable or non-toxic, chances are there is still a calculable carbon footprint and residual effect on the environment.
Do green cleaning products have foul odors? Most cleaning products have some type of smell, but on average, green cleaning products have fewer additives to affect their odor. Many times traditional products have a stronger odor because there is an attempt to mask the odors given off by the other chemicals in the toxic cleaning cocktail. It is always a good idea when adding a new product to a public space to have it reviewed or to give it a trial run in a small, controlled area.
Are green cleaning products more expensive? More times than not, the price of a green-cleaning product is equal to that of a traditional cleaner. Like any new product (e.g., the electric car), until the demand catches up with supply, prices can be higher. Strategies such as buying in bulk and concentrated versions can lower the price.
How do I know a product is truly green? The short answer is to look for certification from a non-biased third party. There are currently several reputable organizations that validate a product’s environmental claims:
• Green Seal
• TerraChoice (EcoLogo program)
• The EPA’s Design for the Environment (DfE) program
• The Carpet & Rug Institute’s Seal of Approval program.
“Using a third party to do the evaluation makes buying these products easy, especially when considering how complicated it can be to evaluate all of the short- and long-term health issues associated with products, as well as their environmental impacts to air and water, energy consumption, packaging, training and other requirements,” says Stephen Ashkin, president of the Ashkin Group, which specializes in green cleaning.
While these organizations are independent of one another and have different criteria for certifying a product as environmentally preferable, they are all dedicated to protecting the environment and the public from toxic cleaning products. Some of the qualities these organizations look for in products are:
• Zero ozone-depleting potential
• Free of alkylphenol ethoxylate surfactants and nonylphenol ethoxylates
• No additives used with the sole purpose of changing the scent of the product
• Minimal to no VOCs
• Reduced or recycled packaging.
This is only a short list of what these groups look at when certifying a product as green; in most cases, the lists are quite extensive–down to specific chemical compounds. The work of these groups carries even more weight when one considers that manufacturers are not required to list all the ingredients, only active disinfectants and chemicals known to be toxic.
It is important to choose products that have been independently verified, as manufacturers have begun to make environmental and health claims that are not substantiated. Simply because a product is labeled green or natural does not necessarily mean it is safe for the environment. For example, finding the word “natural” on a product does not confirm or validate that it is safe or less toxic, as there is no industry standard for the term. The NPA (Natural Products Association), a nonprofit group, has a list of standards a product must meet to carry that seal. The NPA stamp ensures that a product is composed of 95%-natural ingredients.
The term “environmentally friendly” is more confusing, forcing the consumer to figure out what part of the product and/or packaging is environmentally friendly. You may be using a traditional toxic cleaner packaged in an environmentally friendly box! Your best bet is to talk with the janitorial-supply representative, to look for the independent organizations listed above, and to trust your instincts–if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Where Do I Start?
The U.S. Green Building Council, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Existing Buildings Operations and Maintenance (LEED-EBOM) is a good place to start any green campaign. Even if you are not interested in having a building LEED-certified, there is a wealth of information on how to develop and implement a green-cleaning program. The Green Seal 37 (GS-37) standard is an exceptionally effective place to start when looking to purchase green cleaning products. Many state and local governments now require GS-37 certification as a minimum requirement for any prospective cleaning product.
The EPA’s Environmentally Preferable Purchasing (EPP) program is also a great resource for green cleaning. While it is a program tailored to the federal government, it is a valuable asset to any government agency. The EPP Web site offers guidance on numerous green products and services, including cleaning products, office supplies and even fleet information. This is a valuable place in which to see how other agencies made green strategies work.
Similar to the first electric cars of the modern era, green cleaning products face a similar developing life cycle that includes clarifying the misconceptions, creating benchmarks in the industry, and establishing guidelines. The advantages of green products go beyond reducing the impact on the environment; they can also have a positive effect on the bottom line. Coupled with saving our planet, their use begs the question, “Why not?”
Steve Yeskulsky is a CPRP currently working in the parks and recreation industry in Sarasota, Fla. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com
How To Dispose Of Unwanted Cleaning Products
When replacing or discarding unwanted cleaning products, begin with the label on the container. Many times, it will have guidance for disposal and contact information for further assistance. Contact your local government as most accept certain types of products during specific waste-collection days.
Most municipalities will not only have this information readily available but might direct you as well to a collection point for hazardous or toxic materials. Sylvia Womble Saenz, with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, gives another option for replacing or recycling your old cleaners: “From an environmental standpoint, the best option for dealing with traditional cleaners is to use them as needed, per label instructions. If a person or organization insists on discarding traditional cleaners, the preference is to donate the cleaner to someone else so that he or she can use the cleaner per label instructions.”
If you are still uncertain of what to do, contact the EPA. Its Web site deals specifically with hazardous waste to help consumers properly dispose of these materials. Lastly, if the cleaners you are handling have been sitting awhile and/or have started eating a hole in the floor, your using a mask, goggles and rubber gloves might just save an eye, finger or lung.