When building service contractors think of green products, what often comes to mind are chemicals, floor finishes and paper products. But mops, cloths, sponges, and other hand tools can be very green, too, although they’re just beginning to be marketed as such. Many manufacturers cite sustainability as the key to their products’ “greenness.” Some companies are also taking a proactive stance in greening their products — and the industry — by researching paths to new certifications.

Green, how?
It can be easy to see why other green products are environmentally responsible — green chemicals emit low volatile organic compounds (VOCs); green towels are made with recycled content. However, when it comes to hand tools, its not as obvious.
The number one reason these products are green, say product manufacturers, is sustainability.

“Sustainability is important to us and as leaders in marketplace we’ll be leaders in sustainability,” says Joe DeZarn, director of marketing communications for Rubbermaid Commercial Products, Winchester, Va. Rubbermaid is marketing its microfiber high dusters and three types of hand cloths as green.

When it comes to sustainable hand tools, microfiber leads the way.

“Microfiber products are easily identifiable as environmentally responsible products,” says Bland Murphy, business development specialist for Jones Ltd, Humboldt, Tenn.

Using microfiber mops rather than cotton mops can save thousands of gallons of water annually, says Dave Greubel, vice president for TxF Products Professional Products Division, Arlington, Texas.

In addition, TxF tries to reduce waste for the environment. Adaptors enable existing mop handles to be used with microfiber products instead of being thrown out and ending up in a landfill. Also there is less strain on natural resources since new handles don’t need to be produced, says Greubel.

Rubbermaid focuses on more than how a product’s intended use can contribute to a healthier environment. The company also takes into consideration the product’s content, how it’s manufactured, and its packaging, says DeZarn.

Today, green attributes are closely related to the moniker “cleaning for health.” What makes a product safe for a worker also makes it safe for the environment.

Jones Ltd. is one company that sees the similarity between health and the environment.

“We tend to focus more on infection control, which relates to green,” says Murphy.

For example, microfiber helps capture more bacteria, which prevents cross-contamination and keeps workers and building occupants healthy, says Murphy.

Microfiber mops and cloths absorb dirt and often these products can effectively clean areas by using water instead of chemicals. Reducing chemical usage makes cleaning safer for workers and also improves indoor air quality for building occupants, says DeZarn.

No standard…yet
Without a green standard, for example certification by Green Seal or EcoLogo, how do manufacturers prove their hand tools are green?

“We don’t want to make claims that are not meaningful or are unsubstantiated,” says DeZarn.

Representatives from Rubbermaid are currently working with a university professor to pioneer metrics for green hand tool standards, scrutinizing every step of their product’s lifecycles, from recycling hydraulic oil to eliminating reliance on any colorants based on heavy metals such as copper.

“We’re also talking with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to enhance the stream of post consumer recycled content,” DeZarn adds.

Other manufacturers are working with third-party accreditation organizations develop green standards for their products.

“We’re trying to work with Green Seal, the EPA and also some European companies to get certified, but green cleaning is so large, and products have very low priority,” says Bruno Niklaus, vice president of global marketing for Unger Enterprises, Bridgeport, Conn.

Unger is marketing microfiber mops, cloths and sponges as green. In addition to U.S. criteria, Unger products meet the European CE standard, says Niklaus. The European standard is very stringent and considers many environmental attributes.

“We inform our end users and distributors how Unger’s products are fitting within green guidelines and philosophies,” he says. “We also promote the whole Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) concept — and we’re a member of LEED. We created a brochure about how to earn LEED points in categories like Energy and Atmosphere with Unger.”

TxF is just starting to highlight the green advantages to its products, says Greubel, and anticipates a customer base ready for green hand tools.

“I think [green has] finally caught on. Unfortunately most certification programs are for chemicals and there is no protocol for tools,” says Greubel. “So we’re starting to pioneer that, to help develop criteria and we’re at very early stages with organizations like Green Seal and the EPA in green purchasing.”

Tomorrow’s tools New green certifications for hand tools will not come overnight, but the greening of these products is not a passing fad, either. Even skeptics are changing their minds and agreeing that green is the future of hand tools.

John Irwin, vice president of product development at Impact Products, Toledo, Ohio, has cultivated a healthy skepticism about green for more than a decade, but now believes that a cleaner, greener future is becoming a reality. Impact views its microfiber products and sponges that don’t require chemicals as green products. According to Irwin, the greening of hand tools will help introduce better products into the marketplace.

“I think it’s going to be good for our industry and force us to be more innovative, put more thought into developing products that are safer for the worker and environment,” he says. “It’s an exciting challenge.”

The number of environmentally-responsible products will only continue to increase as more manufacturers and end users understand and accept green cleaning. While the green hand-tool trend is currently limited to microfiber and a few other types of products, green-conscious BSCs can be assured that in the future, there will be more products available that promote a sustainable environment.

Lauren Summerstone is a Madison, Wis.-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Contracting Profits.