Brian Slocum met with some resistance when he voiced interest in adopting green cleaning practices in schools. To counteract naysayers, the custodial supervisor for School District 67 Skaha/Okanagan, in Penticton, British Columbia, formed a committee of custodians who were excited about making changes. The group evaluates each new product or piece of equipment, and if it is deemed to be valuable, it is introduced into the school system.

The first green product to meet with the committee’s approval was microfiber. “We started with microfiber cloths,” says Slocum, “and then introduced dust mops and wet pads.”

Slocum works closely with the district’s sales rep to make sure that the microfiber equipment they invest in is durable and ergonomically viable. In addition, he holds monthly meetings for the head custodians to report on their progress with microfiber. Feedback has been positive, he says.

“The microfiber system is more expensive,” says Slocum, “but if it can keep teachers and students in the classroom, it’s paid for itself.”

Other green changes include the use of hydrogen peroxide, recycled paper and HEPA filters.

“We are reviewing absenteeism and comparing this year to last year,” Slocum says. “With the new green custodial practices in place, we have noticed that absenteeism is down among students and workers.”

Prevention, Not Cure

Custodial managers can learn a lot from Slocum’s commitment to creating a healthier school environment. But, as cleaning consultants point out, there’s more to being green than buying a bunch of green cleaners. Green cleaning also includes improving the indoor air quality (IAQ) of a facility.

First and foremost, the cleaning department should maintain an emphasis on proper cleaning procedures.

“Any chemical, green label or not, will contaminate the environment if it’s not properly used,” says Dr. Michael Berry, an IAQ consultant who worked for the Environmental Protection Agency’s indoor air research program. “People need to go back to the basics and understand what cleaning is all about. Until they do, they’re deceiving themselves thinking that buying a green product is going to protect the environment, because it won’t.”

According to Allen Rathey, president of InstructionLink/JanTrain, Inc., in Boise, Idaho, there are three ways to improve indoor air quality: source capture, ventilation and air cleaning.

“By far the most important step is to capture pollutants at the source,” he says. “That applies to the cleaning process, because if we can prevent contaminants from entering the building to begin with, we don’t have to worry about how they affect indoor air quality.”

One of the most effective methods of capturing indoor air pollutants is a vacuum cleaner, say experts. Housekeeping service providers should look for one that is certified by the Carpet and Rug Institute’s Seal of Approval/Green Label program. To earn this certification, vacuum cleaners are tested for soil removal, dust containment and carpet texture retention.

Matting is another useful way to practice source containment. “If you have good entrance matting, you can help prevent dust, dirt and soil from entering the building where it can become airborne and create all kinds of problems,” says Rathey.

Mats should be bi-level construction, he says, so that dirt falls into the recessed area while the foot passes along the surface of the mat and doesn’t pick up what has already been deposited. Matting should also be cleaned regularly so that it doesn’t become a source of contaminants.

Less Is More

Jim Newman, managing partner of Newman Consulting Group in Bloomfield, Mich., encourages continual training of janitorial staff when adopting a green cleaning program.

“A lot of people still think because [a green cleaner] doesn’t have the powerful smell they’re used to, it can’t be doing as good a job, so they use more product than they need to,” he says. “In addition to being wasteful and costly, overuse of green cleaners can actually be unhealthy for janitors.”

Rathey adds that the cleanest smell is no smell at all.

“When you can smell a product, you’re inhaling VOCs (volatile organic compounds),” says Newman. VOCs are gaseous air pollutants derived from cleaning products, he explains. “The goal is to reduce harmful VOCs as much as possible.”

Rathey recommends using a green-certified liquid cleaner and applying it directly to the cloth.

“Don’t use it in spray or aerosol form directly on the surface,” he warns. “That throws tiny droplets [of cleaner] into the air where you’ll breathe them in.”

But even products that claim to be fragrance free can be potentially harmful if inhaled, warns Stephen Ashkin, president of The Ashkin Group LLC, Bloomington, Ind.

“Many fragrances in cleaning products are synthetic compounds, and there’s concern about those causing respiratory and other health problems,” Ashkin says. “A fragrance is an ingredient that’s added to change the scent of a product. Some organizations are promoting fragrance-free products, which can be a good solution, but these products can still have an unpleasant odor. People can still suffer health problems if they breathe them in.”

Housekeeping departments can purchase cleaning products in pre-measured packets to prevent overuse. This can also help save money and protect the custodial worker from breathing in harmful fumes.

In addition to purchasing cleaners certified by Green Seal, GREENGUARD or through the EcoLogo program, custodial managers can protect themselves from potential fraudulent products by asking the manufacturer for its test data.

“Companies that are willing to provide the data are generally reliable,” says Ashkin. “If they don’t want to divulge that information, go somewhere else. Housekeeping managers don’t have to be victims here. They have a number of choices.”

Test data should also be requested to determine the cleaning product’s efficacy, says Berry.

“Many times, manufacturers look at the chemicals in the product and say they won’t hurt anything,” he says. “But they never ask the question, ‘Do they aid in the cleaning process?’ If it’s deemed to be harmless, that’s fine and good, but it also might be useless and contribute nothing to cleaning. If you’re injecting a useless chemical into the environment, you’re polluting it. These are things you have to be concerned about.”

Why Green?

When it comes to breathing in harmful chemicals, custodians face the greatest risk of exposure on a daily basis. This in itself should be reason enough for management to adopt a green cleaning program, but often it isn’t. In fact, convincing facility managers that going green is economically viable can be one of the biggest challenges a housekeeping manager faces, say consultants.

“You have to learn to speak the language of the people who pass out the money,” says Newman. “Just saying you’re going to use products that are better for the environment doesn’t work. Their language is ‘return on investment.’ You need to convince top management that it’s in their best interest from a marketing and an economic standpoint to do this.”

Marketing the facility’s green cleaning program can translate into quicker rentals, higher rental rates, and greater tenant retention, says Newman.

“Tenants in a building appreciate knowing a facility has implemented a green cleaning program,” he says.

Companies can also benefit from recognition in local newspapers or magazines, or awards for their green cleaning efforts. Housekeeping managers can communicate their green practices to building occupants and the public by working closely with their sales reps to develop marketing materials, suggests Newman. Ideas include stickers for mirrors, towel dispensers that advertise the use of recycled paper, or cards for cafeteria tables that let diners know the company no longer uses Styrofoam cups.

According to Rathey, cleaning managers can also point to data outside the cleaning industry to substantiate the benefits of green cleaning. The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) has conducted studies showing improved IAQ lowers the rate of sick building syndrome. Estimated cost savings are in the billions of dollars nationally.

“The impacts are pervasive,” says Rathey. “If you reduce the amount of airborne dust, you reduce labor costs for removing that dust. There will be less absenteeism and employees will be more productive. This will result in lower workers compensation and insurance costs for the facility.”

Experts agree: Green cleaning is not just a fad — it’s here to stay.

“The green building movement, which is the driver for green cleaning, is accelerating,” says Ashkin. “In January, the U.S. Green Building Council approved the new version of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Existing Buildings: Operations & Maintenance. Its rate of adoption continues to grow. Documents like the Green Guide for Health Care and The Quick & Easy Guide to Green Cleaning in Schools gives facility managers and cleaning managers a roadmap to simplify product issues and gives them the confidence to make informed decisions.”

Kassandra Kania is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, N.C.



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Properly implementing green cleaning will help improve the indoor air quality (IAQ) within a facility. Listen as Jim Newman, managing partner of Newman Consulting Group in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., explains some of the side effects of poor IAQ, as well as benefits facilities will notice as a result of improved IAQ