Making ‘Green’ Work

Environmentally friendly chemicals can deliver benefits to facilities, but only if managers make sound purchasing decisions

By Alan S. Bigger  

In a report published in March 1998 by Green Seal, a non-profit group that promotes the use of environmentally friendly products, opens this way: “Scrub, squirt, splash, scour. We could be winning the war against filth and grime — but at what cost to the environment? Cleaning products are among the most hazardous chemicals you will find in your home or office and are regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. These cleaners are part of our burgeoning hazardous waste stream.”

The chemicals that housekeeping managers specify and purchase for staffs to use in cleaning facilities are with us from day of purchase, to disposal and beyond. And the concerns addressed by Green Seal are being voiced more loudly today by persons who clean facilities for a living and who regularly are exposed to cleaning products and their side effects.

It is not uncommon for a housekeeping manager to receive a call from a customer expressing concerns about cleaning chemicals, their odors and the impact on indoor air quality (IAQ). The effect chemicals have on employees who perform cleaning operations is becoming a matter of increased concern among both facility occupants and occupational safety and health experts as more people report allergies to chemicals.

Such concerns are expressed by Massachusetts in its Environmentally Preferable Products Procurement Program which states: “Some industrial and household cleaning products include formulations of particularly strong chemical agents that can pose a respiratory hazard, particularly when used in poorly ventilated areas. Many cleaning formulations also can irritate the skin through dermal contact.”

According to a janitorial-products publication, each year about six out of every 100 professional janitors are injured by the chemicals they use, with burns to the eyes and skin the most common injuries, followed closely by breathing toxic fumes.

‘Green’ Benefits

A growing number of housekeeping managers have implemented a proactive program for purchasing and using chemicals. The purchase and use of such products has been labeled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as Greening Your Purchase of Cleaning Products. According to the EPA’s adaptation of Green Seal’s Choose Green Report, among the immediate benefits of purchasing and using chemicals that are friendly to humans and the environment are these:

  • Using fewer hazardous products can minimize harmful impacts to custodial workers, improve IAQ and reduce water pollution.
  • Buying cleaners in concentrates and returnable packaging reduces packaging waste.
  • Buying fewer hazardous cleaners might reduce hazardous waste costs when it comes time to properly dispose of leftover cleaners.
  • Switching from traditional cleaning products to biodegradable, low-toxicity, or otherwise less harmful products can dramatically reduce the environmental impact of routine cleaning activities without sacrificing cleaning effectiveness.
  • Some studies suggest that improving IAQ in work environments can improve overall productivity by more than 8 percent.


Benefits for Users

The EPA and Green Seal cite many advantages of buying and using environmentally friendly products. But there are additional advantages from a cleaning manager’s perspective:

Less caustic. Chemicals that are less caustic will not damage fixtures and surfaces. Too often, caustic chemicals damage metallic fixtures. Cleaning chemicals that are far too strong have damaged many countertops in restrooms.

More flexible. Environmentally friendly chemicals are becoming increasingly flexible, meaning the end user has to stock, inventory and use fewer chemicals, resulting in lower cost.

According to the EPA, “The National Park Service (NPS), used to buy more than 130 different cleaning products but has switched to a family of products it considers environmentally preferable. It now buys only 15 products.”

Easier to use. A cleaning program that exposes employees and customers to fewer chemicals is easier to use, easier to train and easier to implement. It is far easier to teach persons to use 15 chemicals than it is to use 130, and the potentials for errors in use are less.

Lower cost. The overall costs for using such chemicals might be less than a traditional arsenal of cleaning chemicals. “Green” products are easier to use and easier to dispose of, and they expose employees to fewer injuries. According to the EPA, “Purchasing a smaller number of products allows NPS to buy them in greater volume and at a bigger discount than purchasing small quantities of a large number of products.”

Making it Work

The concept of using environmentally friendly chemicals is catching on. According to one informal poll, “64 percent of more than 120 end users polled have purchased environmentally preferable products.” When implementing a “green” purchasing program for chemicals, managers must keep several key goals in mind:

  • Products with low skin irritation are preferred over those with a higher irritation potential.
  • Products with ingredients that are less likely to affect the food chain are preferred over those that impact aquatic, plant or animal life.
  • Cleaning chemicals with fewer volatile organic compounds (VOC) are preferred.
  • Avoid products with additives, such as a fragrances, to minimize IAQ concerns.
  • Minimize the use of chemicals containing dyes.
  • Buy chemicals in packaging that is minimal, that has been made from recovered resources and that can be recycled after use.
  • Buy products that minimize exposure of personnel to concentrated materials.

Clear definition. Clearly define the organization’s “green” purchasing philosophy. For example, the National Park Service in the publication Envirofacts, defined agency's “green” procurement strategy as “the affirmative procurement of environmentally preferred products and services. These products or services have a lesser or reduced effect on human health and the environment when compared with competing products or services that serve the same purpose. Environmental preferability is a function of the following factors. These include: (1) recyclability and recovered material content; (2) performance and durability; (3) toxicity and biodegradability; and (4) life cycle energy/natural resource use.”

Set criteria. Outline the minimum criteria that environmentally preferred products should meet. A good starting place are formerly published guidelines, such as the clear set of criteria that cleaning products must meet for the state of Massachusetts. The state advises that products: contain no ingredients from the Massachusetts Toxic Use Reduction Act list of chemicals; contain no carcinogens, contain no ozone-depleting ingredients; comply with the phosphate content levels stipulated in Massachusetts law; and comply with the volatile organic compound (VOC) content levels stipulated in Massachusetts law.

Identify broad goals. Identify environmental attributes that are of concern to the organization. For instance, the EPA listed some concerns in the June 1997 study entitled Cleaning Products Pilot Project Fact Sheet. Through this project, the EPA encouraged each government buyer to consider the following attributes:

Debunking Myths

Even though many organizations have converted to an environmentally friendly program for buying cleaning chemicals, two prevailing false myths need to be demystified:

  • Chemicals are too costly. Not according to the EPA, which cites one mid-sized pharmaceuticals company that has saved more than $35,000 annually after it switched to “green” cleaning products.
  • The chemicals do not work. As mentioned earlier, the NPS moved from using 130 different cleaning chemicals to 15 products. By using quality performance-based specifications, buyers can ensure they purchase environmentally friendly products that work.

The research is in: Environmentally friendly chemicals work. They can help departments decrease operational overhead, minimize hazardous waste, improve IAQ and increase productivity. Environmentally friendly chemicals are a viable alternative to potentially hazardous cleaning chemicals. “Green” products contribute to a cleaner and safer environment for facility occupants and workers.

Tips on Training

No matter what types of cleaning chemicals are purchased, housekeeping managers need to provide appropriate safety training to ensure that chemical users are thoroughly trained to work safely with chemicals. At a minimum, training should instruct users to:

  • wear all appropriate personal protection equipment, including eye goggles or gloves, when using chemicals
  • mix chemicals according to the manufacturer’s directions
  • measure chemicals prior to mixing with water
  • refer to current material safety data sheets, which should be readily available for all employees
  • read the chemical’s label before use
  • make sure that a container is appropriately labeled when placing a diluted solution of a chemical into another bottle, such as a spray bottle
  • label all chemical containers with approved labels; masking tape with marker writing is not sufficient
  • respond properly in a chemical emergency.

— Alan S. Bigger and Linda B. Bigger

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  posted on 8/1/2002   Article Use Policy

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