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There is no doubt that green cleaning has become a part of our industry, especially in certain building segments and parts of the country. Years ago it was an optional program offered at a premium price to increase profit margins. But today it is often an expected method of doing business and is increasingly being required by customers, especially as the cost of green products continues to move toward cost neutrality compared to their traditional counterparts.

While many contractors care deeply about environmental issues, others do green cleaning for pragmatic business reasons. Candidly, I got over the moralizing and "doing it for the right reason" a long time ago and am just delighted that companies are using greener products, focusing on conserving chemicals and other products, training their workers better, and seeking methods to reduce the use of energy and water even when it is supplied by their customers. Regardless of "why" a company does these things, they result in reduced negative impacts on both health and the environment, and they're good for business.

So regardless of how one came to green cleaning, we can be proud of the contribution we are making as an industry, and recognize that we are a part of a legacy that is genuinely trying to do something very positive and important.

This is especially true considering that April 22 is Earth Day. Back in 1970, Gaylord Nelson, a Senator from Wisconsin, called for an environmental teach-in, or Earth Day, to be held on April 22. Now more than 40 years after the original Earth Day, the United States continues to grapple with environmental challenges. From oil spills and pollution to energy production and climate change to over-consumption and resource depletion, the litany of issues continues to expand.

These issues can be important to us because the cleaning industry has such large impacts on health and the environment. For example, the commercial and institutional cleaning industry (this excludes household products) in the United States consumes:

  • 6 billion pounds of cleaning chemicals, most of which are derived from valuable, but non-renewable natural resources such as petroleum. These resources are extremely important to our way of life, but most experts, including those from the petroleum industry, expect them to be depleted within 100 years or so.
  • 4.5 billion pounds of sanitary paper (this includes toilet tissue and paper hand towels), much of which is derived by cutting down trees and if made from virgin fiber (as opposed to recycled fiber), would require the cutting of approximately 25 million trees. Trees are important for regulating our atmosphere, cleansing our water and providing habitats for countless species that are vital to a healthy ecosystem.
  • 1 billion pounds of miscellaneous products such as vacuum cleaners, entry mats, mops, buckets, and other materials, which when disposed is enough to fill 40,000 garbage truck loads in our landfills. But more importantly, when one of these pieces of cleaning equipment is disposed, it is typically replaced with something new, which results in additional environmental impacts from the mining of the minerals which make the metal wires, motors, and other similar parts; petroleum for the plastic components; impacts when these materials are turned into finished goods; transportation when shipping them from the manufacturer, etc.

Regardless of why you practice green cleaning, know that you are making an important difference. And yes, it has to be good for both the environment and the bottom line. At the same time, don't miss the opportunity to participate proudly in this year's Earth Day activities, whether it's because you're a true believer or expert practitioner. Showing up is half the battle.

Stephen Ashkin is president of The Ashkin Group and executive director of the Green Cleaning Network. He can be reached at ashkin@tradepress.com.