By Stephen Ashkin

Stephen Ashkin is president of The Ashkin Group, a nationally renowned consulting firm helping both contractors and building owners “green” the cleaning process.

For years, the cleaning marketplace focused solely on performance and cost. However, one of the contributions made by the “green” movement was a new thought process called “lifecycle thinking” or “cradle to grave.”

This new way of thinking not only considers the impact of products resulting during their use or disposal stages, but introduces the fact that many products have significant impacts throughout their entire lives. Beginning with the extraction of the raw materials that actually comprise the product, to its manufacturing, use of energy and water, its waste and emissions, transportation impacts, the actual use of the product and finally, ending with the ultimate disposal of the product — thus, from cradle to grave.

This thinking was codified in Presidential Executive Order (EO) 12873 issued in 1993 and reauthorized as EO 13101 in 1998, which defines green products. Over the years as product manufacturers have invested in green cleaning, the result has been an increasing number of products that have reduced raw material use and impacts from manufacturing, concentrating products which reduced transportation impacts, toxicity and waste. Cradle-to-grave thinking resulted in a large array of options for contractors in addition to better product performance and lower costs.

However, as cradle-to-grave thinking continues, a new concept emerged from chemist Michael Braungart and architect William McDonough. In 2002 they published the book “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things” and introduced the notion of “waste as food” where products after use became “food” for new and even better products mimicking how nature works.

Braungart and McDonough observed that cradle-to-grave products were typically “downcycled” after use which resulted in a lower value product. An example of downcycling is when high quality plastic materials are turned into parking bumpers because the recycled material is contaminated preventing its use in higher quality products.

“Cradle-to-cradle” thinking would design the products and systems in a way which results in taking-back products at the end of its useful life and turning it into new products of equal, if not greater, value.

The impact that cradle-to-cradle thinking will have on cleaning products is likely to include equipment with components that can be taken back and reused, while all other components will be recycled and reused in other equipment of equal or greater value; chemicals made from biological organisms, which become nutrients in the environment and whose waste is simply water and carbon dioxide; or plastic components, bags and packaging materials made from rapidly renewable nonfood agricultural products that can be recycled into products of equal or greater value or composted at the end of their lives.

While cradle to cradle is just emerging as a concept within the cleaning industry, it is an inevitable next step for the green cleaning movement.