Traditionally, end users rely on petroleum-based solvents and butyl-based chemicals to clean indoor environments. While these chemicals are effective, they can also damage surfaces and can be harmful to cleaning personnel and building occupants’ health if used improperly.

Throughout the last decade, however, federal and state legislation has mandated certain facilities implement green cleaning programs that focus on the well-being of individuals and the environment. As a result, end users are required to purchase green chemicals and biobased chemicals as part of their green programs.

Although both green and biobased chemicals are considered better for the environment than traditional cleaning chemicals, distributors say the categories are often viewed interchangeably  by customers.

“There is confusion out there with customers,” says Renae Hesselink, vice president of sustainability for Nichols Inc., Spring Lakes, Mich. “Biobased does not automatically mean it is green, but there is that assumption.”

Distributors can’t stress enough to their customers that grouping the two categories together is actually inaccurate. As a result, distributors need to educate customers on how the two chemical categories differ and where there are circumstances when the two overlap.


A green chemical is a product that has a lesser or reduced impact on human health and the environment when compared with competing products that serve the 
same purpose.

One of the prevalent concerns when using chemicals, especially floor strippers, is the impact on indoor air quality (IAQ). So, the amount of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) is one of the first indications of how green a chemical can be. There are third-party certifications such as Design for the Environment (DfE), EcoLogo and Green Seal that require testing and evaluation of skin and inhalation toxicity for product use.

Because green cleaning is at a fever pitch, an abundance of product offerings have made chemical selection a challenge for end users. Distributors say there are still customers who need to be educated on what a green chemical is because of misleading green claims being made by some chemical manufacturers. For example, some of the products in question often include “non-toxic” and “biodegradable” as its chief green attributes or have the word green in their name.

Any uncertainty over a green chemical can easily be cleared up by searching for a third-party certification label on the product’s packaging. Third-party certifications provide customers with the assurance that a chemical bearing its logo meets stringent standards of environmental leadership. Hesselink says product manufacturers who earn the right to display a third-party logo such as Green Seal, EcoLogo or DfE on their products, have invested heavily in research, development and reformulation to ensure that their ingredients and finished product line up on the green end of the health and environmental spectrum while maintaining or improving product performance.


Biobased chemicals are composed of renewable ingredients derived from plants such as soybeans and corn. These ingredients are environmentally safer, increase rural economic development, foster domestic production of resources and reduce U.S. dependency on imported products such as foreign oil.

In theory, distributors say biobased products are good because they use renewable resources in place of a limited supply of oil. However, just because a product uses sustainable materials doesn’t mean that it’s green. A biobased chemical is not necessarily as safe as a green chemical.

“There are certain products made from biobased ingredients that could potentially cause a negative reaction, whether it be through inhalation, skin sensitivity or in extreme cases there could be something else that could lead to a disruption in your body over time,” says Keith Schneringer, marketing manager for San Diego-based WAXIE Sanitary Supply.

For example, one of the most common ingredients for biobased chemicals is citrus. Citrus-based products are cleaners and degreasers that remove grease, grime, gum and smoke film from hard surfaces such as stainless steel, porcelain and tile. These cleaners also work well as carpet spotters. Since the primary ingredient is d-limonene, an extract from citrus peels, citrus-based products have a strong orange scent, which is useful for deodorizing. However, Teresa Farmer, green program specialist with Knoxville, Tenn.-based Kelsan Inc., says that the deodorizing smell with citrus-based biobased products can cause trouble in facilities, unlike most green products that don’t have fragrances.

“In some instances, the citrus aroma might be beneficial over green products that have no smell, but they can be irritating to some people,” she says.
Government facilities lead the way in biobased product use due to the United States Department of Agriculture’s
 BioPreferred Program, which mandates all federal agencies to purchase biobased products.

Distributors say they point customers to biobased products recognized by the BioPreferred Program. Under the BioPreferred Program, a product must meet or exceed the minimum biobased content percentage in its given category in order to use the program’s Certified Biobased Product label.

Minimum content in biobased chemical categories used in the cleaning industry are as follows: multi-purpose cleaners, 56 percent; floor strippers, 78 percent; glass cleaners, 49 percent; carpet and upholstery cleaners, 54 percent; carpet and upholstery spot removers, 7 percent; and graffiti and grease removers, 34 percent.

Unlike green chemicals, biobased chemicals do not currently qualify for LEED certification points.

“Biobased chemicals can fit into a green program because they are considered environmentally preferable, but at this point, they do not supply certification points for LEED,” says Farmer. “Therefore, the customer should look for that third-party certifier that is required under the certification.”

So, if a distributor promotes biobased products as part of a sustainability program, this could mislead a customer to think it would qualify for a program for a LEED building.

“They would discover that it may not qualify when documenting the details and if a building owner is pursuing LEED-EBOM and they are in their performance period when this discovery is made, it could interrupt that process and or jeopardize that LEED credit,” says Hesselink.