After years spent hovering just below the radar, green cleaning and cleaning for health movements have exploded — thanks in part to an increasing concern for the environments in which we live.

Nowhere is that concern more justified than in schools, where children and staff spend much of their days. Clean and safe indoor educational environments have become especially important to many groups, including health advocates, educators, parents and service providers. And green cleaning and cleaning for health are a crucial element of a healthy school.

Though many educational facilities are cleaned by in-house custodians, building service contractors that provide green cleaning services are in a unique position to jockey for contracts with schools. With the number of states requiring green cleaning procedures in schools growing, the trend toward green cleaning in schools is building. For those BSCs who want to strike while the iron is hot, now is the perfect time.

Growing in popularity
The market has seen a sharp increase in green product certification programs — such as Green Seal, Ecologo and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Design for the Environment — as well as educational opportunities. To this point, much of the impetus for green cleaning program implementation and certification was legislative or policy-driven mandates in certain sectors.
Alan Bigger, director of building services at the University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Ind., anticipates that the state of Indiana will at some point sign green cleaning mandates into law — and having practiced environmentally friendly cleaning techniques for years, the university is ready to be a green cleaning leader.

“We decided that we should probably get ahead of where the state might become very, very stringent,” he says. “We’re a private agency but we felt if this is the direction some of the states are going in, then it only made common sense for us to do the same thing before it became mandated in the state we were in.”

Illinois is the most recent state to jump on board with green cleaning requirements for schools. At the end of March, the Green Clean Schools Act was overwhelmingly approved by the state House of Representatives. Bill authors expect the Senate to pass the act as well. The New York Legislature passed a similar bill last year.

The Healthy Schools Campaign, which has assisted with the Illinois legislation, has experienced a tremendous response to its guide, “The Quick and Easy Guide To Green Cleaning in Schools,” which is available at no cost to schools and BSCs. The guide outlines five steps to green cleaning: switching to green cleaning products, using green equipment and supplies, adopting green cleaning procedures, using green paper and plastic products and educating staff about the importance of green and how they play a part.

“Cleaning contractors play a very important role in [a healthy indoor environment],” says Rochelle Davis, executive director of the campaign organization. “They are choosing equipment, they are training staff. They’re the ones who are developing the cleaning procedures. And so all of those are extremely important roles that they can play in implementing cleaning programs.”

Common sense approach
Though there has been relatively little scientific data on which to base conclusions about the effectiveness of green cleaning, many believe it’s just common sense to use safer chemicals and processes in schools.

“There is ample evidence that links a healthy indoor environment to student health, students being there and students learning better,” Davis says. “It’s harder to link the research specifically to green cleaning because there’s so many things that are happening in the school environment — but it’s very clear that a healthy environment is important for kids to learn.”

The definition of green cleaning has evolved, says Allen Rathey, president of InstructionLink/JanTrain, Inc. in Boise, Idaho. Whereas it used to primarily mean protecting the planet, it now embodies an embracing of and emphasis on human health.

“I think that’s the right direction because it makes it most compelling, and nowhere is this more important than in schools, where — especially in elementary schools — the vast majority of people using a facility are small,” Rathey says. “They are vulnerable because of their lower body weight, they have a higher rate of respiration, they are closer to the floor. … So schools are a particularly important area and, of course, if you can lower the incidence of asthma, as a prime example, in schools, attendance goes up and in turn, funding for the school goes up because funding for schools is based on attendance.”

Much of green cleaning/cleaning for health in schools is preventative maintenance. The best example is childhood asthma, which has rates that have skyrocketed in recent years. Asthma attacks are caused by triggers that include allergens, gases and airborne particles, so cleaning plays a very important role in controlling the indoor environment. Asthma attacks can be reduced significantly if airborne triggers are reduced, Rathey says, and that can be helped by instituting proper matting and barriers to particulate matter coming into buildings.

Healthier environments
BSCs can help create a high-performance environment in schools by instituting green cleaning and cleaning for health processes, becoming part of a much bigger educational picture that ties healthy children to increased test scores, thus securing those schools more funding.

Contractors would benefit from a focus on cleaning for health, says John Walker, president of ManageMen Inc., and founder of Janitor University. ManageMen’s (OS1)® Green Certified Cleaning Program advocates the minimization of environmental harm, and while green cleaning is a part of that, there is certainly more to the equation, he says. BSCs should prioritize management of the indoor environment and avoid wasting chemicals, he says.

“If you really want to clean for health, you would make sure you had clean filters in your vacuum all the time, you would make sure the chemicals you were using were effective and measure exactly right all the time and that were not being mismixed,” Walker says.

Experts recommend a number of ways contractors can start and continue to implement green cleaning and cleaning for health procedures, from training and certification to daily tasks such as portion control and communication with customers.

Just do it
While it’s difficult to get a foot in the door in educational settings that are dominated by in-house service providers, now is a great time to try, says Stephen Ashkin, president of the Ashkin Group LLC, in Bloomington, Ind.

“The advantage of a contractor who can go in and say, ‘We can offer you this great green program that not only reduces environmental impacts but can reduce potential exposures to students and staff,’ really creates a great opportunity for a contractor to begin that discussion with the school and it’s a discussion that does not begin with the comment, ‘How much is your cost per square foot?’” Ashkin says.

Atlanta-based contractor OneSource offers a green cleaning program, GreenSweep, that includes green products, processes and the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification assistance. Bob Clarke, senior vice president of sales and marketing, says the program has become an increasingly popular option that has helped the company win major contracts.

“It started out with just meeting the needs of a few customers and then slowly, but surely, next thing you know, it had exploded,” Clarke says.

BSCs interested in implementing green cleaning programs in schools should do two things, Ashkin recommends: get educated about green cleaning, and then to start doing it.

“Just do it,” Ashkin says. “They’re never going to become experts without doing the first one.”

Just as contractors need to educate themselves about green cleaning, they also need to educate customers. Cleaning is an industry in which employees are taught to be invisible, but now is the time to let customers know what they are doing, Ashkin says.

“We really want to engage the occupants because we feel that it’s just sort of the basic concept of good customer service. If the customer doesn’t know what you’ve done for them, from their perspective, you haven’t done anything,” he says.

Rathey recommends becoming educated about indoor air quality, including vacuum filtration, matting systems and building ventilation and filtration. In those areas, being green is just a matter of being efficient and sensible about preventing airborne dust and controlling chemicals.

Green certification programs will continue to evolve, many predict. Some products, such as disinfectants, still have a long way to go before they’re sufficiently “green,” Rathey says — and green products aren’t always going to match every job there is. Much product development still needs to happen, he adds.

But it’s only the beginning of green mandates for schools. Whether individual school districts are outlining policies for their buildings or states are instituting sweeping reform, green cleaning and cleaning for health are going to become effectively mainstreamed. The BSCs that take advantage of the upcoming green cleaning needs of schools will reap the rewards of doing so for years to come.