Corn and coconut may not sound like grime-fighting machines, but these and other innocuous ingredients are making their way into everything needed to clean a restroom, from glass cleaner to graffiti remover. Oxygen and biobased products can be just as effective and inexpensive as their traditional counterparts, plus they address several hot-button issues.

“Some people ask for biobased products because they want to feel like they are doing their share for the environment,” says Mike Bradley, vice president of sales at Capital Sanitary Supply Inc., in Des Moines, Iowa. “Other companies ask because of indoor air quality issues. If they want to be Leadership In Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified they have to clean with products that meet those requirements. But with a lot of people, our salespeople have to educate them about why the products are better.”

Biobased products are made entirely or primarily of renewable domestic materials (cleaning chemicals commonly use soy, grains, tree sap, citrus, corn and coconut) and are growing in popularity with a little help from the government and the green movement.

Created in 2002 (and expanded in 2008), BioPreferred is a preferred procurement program for federal agencies and their contractors. The goal of the program, which is managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is to reduce the country’s dependency on foreign oil. Biobased products replace petroleum-based surfactants and solvents with products grown domestically. Several states are now implementing similar programs.

Not only are biobased products a patriotic choice, many are also green. Cleaning chemicals made from renewable resources are often environmentally preferable because many are non-toxic and biodegradable. This distinction makes the products one aspect of LEED certification as well.

If ethical concerns aren’t a top priority, biobased products have another sellable quality — they can be very cost-effective. One product, depending on dilution ratios, can often perform multiple tasks, which can eliminate several products from the janitorial closet.

“I think I’m having success with them because I’m going a step beyond green,” says Mariana Mora, area consultant for Jaric Distributors in Tucson, Ariz. “With the economy the way it is right now, if you can knock down six products from your shelf and go to one, it’s the best way to save money, which everyone is looking to do right now. And these products work just as well as other products we have.”

Oxygen and biobased products are particularly effective in the restroom, where they can replace almost every traditional product needed for a top-to-bottom cleanup.

Biobased Products

Traditional butyl- and quaternary-based cleaners are effective but are potentially harmful to surfaces and users. Biobased products provide a safer alternative.

Soy is becoming a popular ingredient for cleaning products because it is a degreaser. Its ability to remove surface coatings makes it effective for graffiti removal.

“Traditional products were not effective against indelible markers or petroleum-based stains,” says David Kawut, CEO of Supply King in Neptune City, N.J. “Now there are some soy-based graffiti removal products that work well at accomplishing both of those things.”

There are some water-based soy products that work well on water-based stains, such as coffee and tea. One soy-based graffiti remover is also a great stainless-steel cleaner, Mora says.

For deeper cleaning, janitors can use citrus-based products. Made primarily of d-Limonene, these products do a good job of lifting and breaking down stains on hard surfaces.

There are also all-purpose citrus-based restroom cleaners available in concentrated or ready-to-use forms.

Biobased ingredients also extend to hand washing and sanitizing products, which are typically made from corn, soy, citrus, sunflower oil or grains. Hand cleaners are available as liquid or foam soap and in waterless formulations. There are also soaps that incorporate walnut shells for heavy-duty scrubbing.

Oxygen-based Products

Other effective and popular products for the restroom are oxygen-based. While not technically biobased (most use hydrogen peroxide instead of a domestic crop), these products are composed from a renewable resource and are often Earth-friendly.

Orange oil is added to hydrogen peroxide to create an effective cleaner that leaves little or no residue on the surface. Depending on the dilution ratio, oxygen cleaners can be used to clean almost any surface in a restroom, says Kawut.

Oxygen cleaners can be used on floors, walls, bowls, sinks, glass and mirrors. Certain formulations make degreasers, can clean grout and work on hard-water stains. These products typically don’t have added fragrances. Instead they leave a fresh, clean scent, which appeals to many facility users.

Despite their mild scent, oxygen-based products also surprisingly make effective deodorizers.

“You can replace five or six products with just one,” Mora says.

And that simple less-is-more concept is one of the biggest reasons for the success of biobased products.

“They are competitive,” Kawut says. “Back in the 1990s, biobased and green products were not cost effective and they didn’t work. In the last 10 years there have been great strides. Why have green products all of a sudden become very popular? Because they work and they are cost effective now.”

A Disinfectant Problem

If oxygen and biobased products are so effective at restroom cleaning, then why don’t all end users make the leap? In some cases, distributors say, it’s a fear of the new.

“When you are moving away from standard cleaning chemicals, some people have a little anxiety,” Bradley says. “They feel better doing it in steps. First they’ll try some glass cleaner and if that works, they might try the bowl cleaner.”

Even if an organization is ready to switch entirely to biobased products as part of a green effort, the problem of disinfectants remains. Currently, there are no green options for disinfection in the United States due to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rule that classifies the chemicals as pesticides and prohibits third-party environmental groups from placing their seals of approval on the products (although some of these groups do provide non-binding guidelines for disinfectants). Canada does not have the same regulations.

Although they cannot be labeled as green, there are some safer alternatives to traditional products. Manufacturers now produce hydrogen-peroxide based disinfectants that are butyl-free and pH-neutral quaternary. They still provide wide kill rates but aren’t as harsh as traditional phenolics.

Education Process

Because there remains some confusion about biobased cleaners, distributors must educate their customers about green claims and how to use the products.

For example, a manufacturer can call any product green but oftentimes it is really “greenwashing,” which is somewhat of a new term to identify products that may appear environmentally friendly but really aren’t (for example, they may use sustainable ingredients but also have wasteful, non-recycled packaging). This can happen with biobased products, too, which is why it is important to choose products with a third-party green certification.

While oxy and biobased products are just as effective as their traditional counterparts, they may be used differently. For example, Mora’s clients often need training in using an oxygen-based cleaner because it is odorless and some janitors use too much because they think it isn’t working if they can’t smell it.

“It may take more time or a different procedure, but they will do the job,” Bradley says. “The end user may be used to spraying, wiping and moving on to another task. With a biobased cleaner, they may have to spray and let it set a while before they wipe.”

Despite the learning curve with biobased products, many distributors are certain customers will continue to make the switch from traditional cleaners.

“Usually a question that comes up is, ‘Is this just another fad?’” Bradley says. “They are here to stay and pretty soon they will become our traditional cleaners. It’s a slow, steady process of people going to green.”

Becky Mollenkamp is a freelance writer based in Des Moines, Iowa. She is a frequent contributor to Sanitary Maintenance.