“Green” has been a hot buzzword in the cleaning industry for years, but many departments were reluctant — early on — to hop on the green bandwagon, assuming it was just a passing fad. Several decades later, green is continuing to gain momentum, proving that environmentally friendly cleaning is more than just a trend, it’s a way of life.

“When you see companies like Wal-Mart and General Electric committing to becoming green, you know this is bigger than just the Audubon Society,” says Steve Ashkin, president and founder of The Ashkin Group in Bloomington, Ind. “Large, mainstream companies are recognizing that green is both important and valuable. The marketplace is clearly shifting.”

After first taking off in Europe, green cleaning made its way to America’s coasts, where government regulations and liberal-minded individuals spurred an interest in the movement. Although large parts of the country still have not adopted environmentally preferable practices, it may be just a matter of time before they do.

“Maybe it hasn’t hit every part of the industry or the country, but it will sooner or later because there’s so much momentum built up,” says Arthur Weissman, Ph.D., president and CEO of Green Seal in Washington, D.C. “It’s the future, and I don’t think there’s any question about it.”

Shades of Green
What is holding back latecomers from the movement? For many, it is a misunderstanding about what it really means to “go green.” Some housekeeping managers see it as an all-or-nothing proposition, when in fact, experts say, they should view it as a continuum. There are many steps to greening a cleaning program and they may be implemented piecemeal or in concert.

“There are many different degrees of becoming greener or more sustainable,” Weissman says. “They can start incrementally. No one should think they have to have everything in line before they can start doing it.”

We asked the experts to break down the green continuum into five key points, starting with the easiest to implement. Environmental advocates say an ideal program would include all of these steps, but that simply isn’t realistic for many facilities. But, making even one of these changes is a step in the right direction.

1. Reduce waste.
Housekeeping managers are always looking for ways to increase operational efficiency. Most do it because it helps the bottom line, but it can also help the environment. Reducing waste is a critical step in the greening process because it lessens the amount of junk that ends up in landfills and it limits janitors’ exposure to dangerous chemicals.

“The goal is to reduce the health and environmental impacts associated with their cleaning operations,” Ashkin says. “If they do things to make programs more efficient and waste less product, that’s a very good thing.”

Even if departments are using traditional cleaning products, make them “greener” by ensuring that the staff is using them properly and in the proper amounts. Chemical proportioning systems can help with this.

Cleaning managers should also examine their facility for opportunities to implement more healthy and efficient cleaning, such as, introducing a campus-wide recycling program or regulating chemical usage. Although South Nassau Communities Hospital in Oceanside, N.Y. doesn’t yet use green cleaning products, it has removed mercury from its facility and eliminated the use of aerosol cans.

“We are also looking at instituting a smart purchasing initiative, which will reduce the amount of unnecessary items from entering the hospital,” says Mike Rodriguez, administrative director of building services. “This also makes the vendors accountable for their own waste.”

The Hyatt Regency Boston uses chemical proportioning systems, reuses its old linens as rags for the housekeeping department and has recycling bins on guest floors to reduce trash. Even its shower heads and thermostats are designed to cut down on water and energy usage.

“We will explore every avenue to become more energy efficient or environmentally friendly,” says Paul Hartmann, executive housekeeping manager. at the Hyatt Regency Boston

2. Replace products and equipment.
Perhaps the most important change any cleaning crew can make is to replace its traditional cleaning products with greener options. There are now environmentally preferable alternatives to nearly every chemical or piece of equipment in a janitor’s closet — from recycled paper products and no-VOC chemicals, to high-filtration vacuums and microfiber mops. These improved green products are leaps and bounds ahead of their predecessors when it comes to price and performance.

“Green chemicals today are as effective as traditional products and I stand behind that 100 percent,” Ashkin says. “People still tell me that the products don’t work as well or are more expensive. Five years ago that was true, but today it’s just not the case.”

Ashkin adds that there are products — claiming to be green — that might not work or are more expensive, but adds that this can be true with any traditional product. Consumers should be aware of green certifications and labels identifying those certifications. That is how they will know which products are truly green.

Nearly every janitorial manufacturer now offers a comprehensive line of green products. With so many options, how does a housekeeping manager choose which are best for their facility?

“I recommend they look for a certified product, whether it’s Green Seal, Environmental Choice or some other third party,” Ashkin says. “Once they do that, then they should buy the way they normally buy — looking at performance, cost and training issues.”

Unfortunately, third party labeling has become a crowded business, with dozens of organizations now slapping logos onto products. Users are on their own when it comes to learning about the different certifications. For more information, talk to your distributor, search the Internet or call the certifying organization directly for answers. Or, visit the consumer-focused Web site www.ecolabels.org, which provides independent information on the various labels.

3. Change procedures.
It’s important to evaluate not only the products a janitor uses, but also how he cleans. Many cleaning programs are focused on speed and efficiency, but not on taking steps to maintain a healthy environment. For example, a janitor may not allow the necessary contact time for a disinfectant to work properly.

“In a green program, we’d rethink that,” Ashkin says. “We’d apply disinfectant first instead of fifth. And, instead of putting efficiency as the number one priority, we’d change procedures to make protecting health our top priority. When implementing green, you start looking at the world a little differently.”

Evaluate your procedures. Where can you make changes that will have a positive outcome for the environment or for the health of your staff and building occupants? Could you clean at night so your chemicals don’t affect occupants with allergies? Is there personal protective equipment that you could provide staff to limit their contact with dangerous chemicals? Would switching to color-coded systems reduce misuse of chemicals?

4. Train your staff.
“It is not sufficient to use green products if they are used incorrectly,” Weissman says.

Training is incredibly important but ranks lower on the list of priorities because it is one of the most expensive and time-consuming steps. First, managers must get trained in best practices so they can help their staff reach green cleaning goals. Next, the staff should attend an initial comprehensive training program and then have regular retraining sessions to stay current on new products and procedures.

There are a variety of ways to get training. The most affordable option is through distributors, who can provide on-site lessons about how to use their products properly. While this option is certainly beneficial, it is really the bare minimum that should be done. Better options include programs developed by independent groups, such as those offered by industry associations or environmental advocacy organizations.

The private Catlin Gabel School in Portland, Ore., is so committed to sustainability that not only has it switched to all environmentally preferable products, its entire staff has been trained by an independent group. And, 50 staffers are currently going through training specifically focusing on sustainability issues.

“The most challenging thing for us is keeping the staff educated about how to use those products and what the differences are,” says Eric Shawn, plant manager.

“They are different and it’s a matter of getting accustomed to them. It’s a long-term effort that takes continuous education. Over their lives, people develop habits and it takes time to retrain them on new ways of cleaning.”

5. Get certified.
The pinnacle of the green continuum is certification. Just like products, a housekeeping department or a facility can be certified — by a third party — because of it’s green products..

A building can be certified green through the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) program. The LEED certification covers the entire facility, from its custodial operations to its operational systems (indoor air quality, water efficiency and exterior maintenance program). Typically, demand for this certification comes from building owners or managers.

If building owners are looking for industry-specific certification, there are programs available. The Hyatt Regency Boston, for instance, is a member of the Green Hotels Association and there are other similar associations out there.

If certifying the entire facility is too much, housekeeping departments alone can be certified green through Green Seal’s GS-42 certification. GS-42 looks at the products, equipment and procedures a cleaning department uses, as well as its training and communications methods.

Even specific individuals can be certified through the LEED Accredited Professional (AP) certification, which denotes a thorough understanding of green building practices. This certification is quite comprehensive and probably not best suited for housekeeping managers who are involved in only one part of the vast array of information covered by LEED-AP. Currently, there isn’t a specific green certification for individuals in the cleaning profession.

The value of certifications is more about marketing than practicality. It gives a facility or cleaning department something to tout publicly. It makes green claims more credible and may earn a cleaning department more respect and appreciation.

Next Steps
Green cleaning is a journey. Implementing any of the five steps discussed above is a positive start. Doing just one thing differently can have a big impact on a facility’s overall mission, its occupants and the general environment. But don’t stop there, experts say.

“It is a continuum, which means it never ends and there’s not a final step,” Ashkin says. “Technology and our understandings are always improving so we always want to keep looking for ways to improve environmental impacts.”

Ashkin continues, “The real issue is getting started. If you can get started by doing 10 things, great. But if you can only get started by doing two things, then do that. And then do another thing the next year, and another the next year. Eventually, we’ll get there.”

Becky Mollenkamp is a freelance writer based in Des Moines, Iowa.