In a nation-wide first, New York state public schools have gone green by order of the Legislature and signature of the governor. According to the new law, which kicked in at the start of the 2006 school year, school districts are now required to reduce the exposure of children and school personnel to harmful cleaning substances. As a result, every public school in the state will be cleaned with environmentally-preferable products.

That’s fine with Steve Marshall, director of safety and quality control for New York-based Harvard Maintenance. “We clean a private school in Newark and it is cleaned green, and personally I think it’s a good idea to do that,” he says. “To have the state push public schools into cleaning green is a great thing to do. Students won’t have as many absentee days due to problems with the buildings they’re learning in.”

New Yorkers aren’t the only ones going green, as building service contractors throughout the country can attest. Nationwide, the cleaning industry as a whole has become increasingly sensitive to a variety of health and environmental concerns in office buildings, medical centers, schools and more. ISSA, for example, has long conducted various green-cleaning seminars for BSCs; the group also maintains a growing database of all federal, state and municipal programs related to green cleaning, and will soon publish guidelines for suppliers, facility providers and others who want to “go green.”

New York, though, is the first state in the nation to mandate such a complete green-sweep of its schools. The new law has already made a big splash. Now it’s up to BSCs and the cleaning industry to handle the waves of change headed their way.

The ripple effect
“In the broad scheme of things, whether or not such legislation is specific to contractors, it is going to have a major impact on the contractor cleaning business,” says Steve Ashkin, president of The Ashkin Group, a consultant company in Bloomington, Ind. “New York is the first state to legislate the cleaning of schools. What we have historically found is that once one does it, others will follow. Certainly there will be a ripple effect.”

BSCs in other states can, therefore, expect their governments to follow suit and adopt similar or identical versions of New York’s law. And, while New York’s policy deals more with products than practice — “It addresses the procurement side of the equation,” notes Bill Balek, director of legislative affairs for ISSA — states could expand future rules to include procedures related to green cleaning. It’s possible, too, that state-by-state legislation of green cleaning, wherever and whenever it is approved, will extend beyond schools to include state offices, municipal buildings, and other public spaces. New Jersey, for example, has already passed legislation that will require all of its state agencies to use green products.

Even without more legislation, though, experts say the professional cleaning industry will feel the effects of this latest green wave. Contractors in different markets will need to examine anew, for instance, how or when or even if the time is right for their businesses to transition to green products. And as more and more schools switch from in-house cleaning services to out-sourced ones, a growing number of contractors will find they need to keep current on regulations governing the cleaning of schools.

Ashkin points out, too, that the New York law also gives BSCs yet another chance to investigate whether what works in one setting — here, a school — will work in other market segments. And even without exploring new markets, BSCs can use the New York law to expand their existing businesses by offering new services.

In fact, that’s exactly what Tim Brophy did. As the legislation made its way toward the lawbooks, Brophy, president of Syracuse, N.Y.-based Brophy Services, realized that private schools would not want to be out of step with the changes about to take place in the public schools in New York. So he began offering seminars to school personnel on the benefits of green cleaning. Adding “educator” to his resume turned out to be good for Brophy’s business bottom line.

“My business has grown dramatically in the last year,” says Brophy, “because we not only provide green services for some private schools, we do in-house training to instructors, nurses, and other school personnel — ‘Here’s what green cleaning is, here’s who it affects, here’s why we should do it.’ As a result, everybody in a school knows who I am and what we do.”

Brophy notes that the seminars provide a benefit beyond informing an existing audience and advertising to potential others. They also, he says, boost the value of the green cleaning his company provides and give bragging rights to the schools he cleans.

“When we green clean a private school or college, it’s an added bonus because they can turn around and say to the parents, ‘Even though the legislation does not cover us, here’s what we’re doing.’ We look like heroes to the college and they look like heroes to the parents.”

The new rules of green
Studying the New York law will undoubtedly be instructive to cleaning professionals across the country. So will watching as that state’s BSCs adapt to the new cleaning specifications. Experts and officials alike stand ready with recommendations.

“There really are a couple of things that BSCs in New York will need to pay attention to,” Ashkin notes. “If they want to do schools and they want to be in compliance, they have to be cognizant of the requirements of the law and make sure they’re using the appropriate materials. So they really do need to reevaluate their chemicals and their equipment to make sure that they’re meeting the requirements of the law.”

Contractors can find the guidelines for compliance spelled out on the webpage of the Environmental Services Unit of the New York’s Office of General Services. Because the new law deals mostly with cleaning products, the 48-page set of guidelines is filled with information on what types of cleaners are approved for use and what are not. For example, banned cleaning ingredients include alkylphenol ethoxylates, dibutyl phthalates, heavy metals and optical brighteners. A list of approved cleaning products — those certified by the Green Seal program and/or by Canada-based Environmental Choice, now known as Ecologo, can also be downloaded from the site, as can information on the exact language of the legislation.

The second challenge for contractors, says Ashkin, will be to document their work.

“The schools will have to submit information to the state,” he explains, “so it will be very beneficial for the contractors to capture data on products they’re using over the course of the year to make sure it’s easy for the school district to demonstrate that they’re not only in compliance but are doing a great job. If the contractor would be able to do that, I’m sure it would be very beneficial for the school.”

Contractors who have already done it say that switching to green-cleaning products has not been difficult.

“It wasn’t reinventing the wheel,” says Harvard Maintenance’s Tom Smiley. “There was some training involved — you have to mix ‘this’ into ‘that’ — but it wasn’t that difficult and it seems to be working out pretty good for us.” In addition, research and development on the part of manufacturers, and programs such as the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s Design for the Environment are also providing information and support to help ease green transitions for some BSCs.

“There are different shades of green,” notes Marshall, echoing many of his colleagues who have made the switch. “The easiest part is changing to green-certified cleaning chemicals because the procedures are pretty much the same in using those, and the price is basically the same.”

Mary Erpenbach is a freelance writer in Rockford, Ill.