What green cleaning can teach building occupants about sustainability?

Ideas to help FMs and the workforce to understand better the importance of sustainability, and apply those ideas both in the office and at home

by Stephen Ashkin — October 2017

Those involved with sustainability know that in 1983, the Secretary-General of the UN established an official body called the “World Commission on the Environment and Development” — often referred to as the “Brundtland Commission,” after Gro Harlem Brundtland, the prime minister of Norway at the time who headed up the commission.

The commission studied global environmental problems and ultimately proposed a global agenda for addressing them. Brundtland assembled a team that traveled the world, talking to people in all walks of life: fishermen, farmers, homemakers, loggers, school teachers, indigenous people and industry leaders. They discussed various environmental concerns and how they might be addressed.

As it turns out, there wasn’t one particular environmental issue that was first and foremost in peoples’ minds. Instead, discussions centered on living conditions, resources, population pressures, international trade, education and health, among others. Environmental issues were usually tied to most of the talking points, but there was no hard and fast division separating environmental issues from social and economic issues. All the vetted concerns were somehow linked.

In 1987, the Brundtland Commission completed its report. “Our Common Future” focused on and defined sustainable development — a strategy that emphasizes “…meeting present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to also meet their needs.”

The report warned: “If we do not succeed in putting our message of urgency through today’s parents and decision makers, we risk undermining our children’s fundamental right to a healthy, life-enhancing environment.”

In Search of Relevance

Thirty years later, we are still trying to get our arms around the concept of sustainability and — perhaps as important — how to make it relevant in our daily lives.

As a facility management professional, you’re in a significant position as far as making a contribution to the goal of sustainability. Collectively, buildings consume 39% of all energy, 12% of drinking water, and 40% of all raw materials worldwide.

But sometimes the “sustainability disconnect” originates with the people in the cubicles that dot your facility’s interior. How can you help them make a personal connection to sustainability? How can you make sustainability a real part of their work life? How do you communicate the issues and challenges of sustainability so that the people that use your buildings feel that they, too, can make a difference?

Far too often, when we implement important strategies to reduce energy — like installing photovoltaic arrays or combating the heat island warming affect by installing a vegetative roof — we fail to do it in a context that the people in the cubicles can relate to and understand.

Cleaning: The Common Denominator

One way to help building occupants understand sustainability is through “Green cleaning.” This is not to imply that Green cleaning is more important or has a greater global impact than alternative power or energy-saving roofs. But I have found that building tenants and occupants, in general, can relate to cleaning because they apply many of the same cleaning principles — and rewards — in their own homes.

Cleaning Chemicals

In the United States, we consume approximately 6 billion pounds of chemicals to clean and maintain our commercial and institutional buildings. Most of these chemicals are made from non-renewable natural resources (i.e. petroleum and natural gas) and some have serious health and environmental implications during extraction, use or when disposed of.

Green cleaning chemicals can be made from rapidly renewable natural resources (i.e. derived from corn or soybeans) and, as a result, are more sustainable. They can be regrown annually and often can reduce the risks to our health. And the use of third-party certifications like Green Seal or EPA’s Safer Choice Program make it easy to buy professional strength Green chemicals with confidence and are increasingly becoming available at retail outlets for building occupants.

Today, there are also several options that can create cleaning chemicals on-site by turning water into an effective cleaning product or infusing it with ozone.  This emerging technology demonstrates huge benefits from a lifecycle perspective significantly reducing environmental impacts and are predicted to be the future for many daily-use cleaning chemicals.

Paper Products

Consider toilet paper and paper hand towels. Every year, we consume approximately 4.5 billion pounds of janitorial paper products, most of which is made from virgin tree fiber. In order to produce this amount of paper, we cut down approximately 25 to 35 million trees.

Green paper products are made from recycled fiber that reduces the need to cut down trees, preserving our natural habitats and the functions they serve such as cleaning the air we breathe and the water we drink. And as a bonus, recycled paper reduces the amount of energy, water, waste and other necessary resources expended during manufacturing.

Today there are additional options for paper products which include agricultural wastes like wheat straw and products made from rapidly renewable fibers which are grown in less than 10 years generating many more times the fiber per acre compared to traditional hard or soft wood trees.

Powered Equipment

Every year, approximately 500 million pounds of vacuum cleaners, floor machines and other janitorial equipment are hauled off to landfills. Not only does this make a sizable impact on landfills, but the equipment is typically replaced, requiring large quantities of metals for motors, bearings, wires, etc.; plastics for housings and other components, etc.; plus large quantities of energy and other resources consumed during the manufacturing process.

Green equipment is designed to be more durable and easily repaired, thus increasing the longevity of the equipment, and also helps decrease the consumption of natural resources necessary for manufacturing new replacement equipment.

Plastic Can Liners

It may be hard to believe, but plastic can liners (garbage bags) have only been around for 30 years or so, with approximately 100 billion being used in the U.S. each year. 100 BILLION!  Most plastic bags are made from natural gas, a valuable, but nonrenewable natural resource.  Once used and discarded in a landfill, these plastic materials are lost forever.

Green plastic can liners contain a high percentage of recycled content and in some cases as much as 75 percent or more, while ensuring that the bags are properly sized to fit the container and appropriate thickness for the materials being contained in an effort to eliminate unnecessary plastic materials and reduce cost.  Some plastic liners have even been verified by third-parties like EcoLogo/UL for their recycled content, so they can be purchased with confidence.

Furthermore, many facility managers, working with their cleaning personnel and building occupants are eliminating plastic bags altogether in containers such as in deskside bins, one of the current largest uses for these bags.

Connecting To Occupants

The people in the cubicles can go to their local grocery, hardware and other retail store and buy similar cleaning products, toilet paper, vacuum cleaners and plastic can liners that can have the same environmental impact in their own homes.

A successful Green cleaning program helps the people in the cubicles better understand why sustainability is important to future generations and lays the groundwork for supporting and understanding larger, more esoteric sustainability initiatives. And our facility professionals can show them the way.

Stephen P. Ashkin is Executive Director of the Green Cleaning Network a not-for-profit organization dedicated to educating building owners and suppliers about Green Cleaning, and president of The Ashkin Group a consulting firm specializing in Greening the cleaning industry. He is considered the “father of Green Cleaning” and is coauthor of both The Business of Green Cleaning and Green Cleaning for Dummies.

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