Green cleaning practices and products

August 2016 — Green cleaning provides opportunities to influence all areas of the triple bottom line: reduced water and energy use are environmental gains, while reduced toxic chemical use benefits both the environment and the health of occupants. To ensure building operational goals are met in these three areas, the design and implementation of a sustainable maintenance program for green cleaning should integrate the following:

  • Focus on reducing chemical use
  • Establish clear green product selection criteria
  • Identify sustainable equipment selection options or practices
  • Pursue ergonomics and noise level management

Reducing Chemical Usage

A major benefit of a green cleaning program is the emphasis on more efficient procedures to reduce the overall reliance on chemicals. The use of microfiber cleaning rags and mops ensures clean surfaces without additional chemicals. As the UC Davis Medical Center found, microfibers attract dust and debris using static electricity and at least eliminate 95 percent of bacteria from surfaces. They are reusable, as well. The cost of microfiber rags is usually quickly defrayed by fewer purchases of disposable paper towels.

The next step is to equip the machines that dispense cleaning chemicals, such as automated floor scrubbers, with calibrated metering equipment to optimize chemical usage.

An even more effective solution may be to switch from using chemical cleaners to clean tap water to further reduce reliance on potentially harmful substances. Reducing the volume of chemicals and using green chemicals helps minimize the impact of cleaning activities on building occupants, cleaning staff, and the surrounding environment.

When chemicals absolutely are needed, concentrated chemicals have much smaller transportation and storage costs. A case of four 2-liter (4.23-pint) bottles can replace 20 cases of ready-to-use cleaner, keeping a facility from spending extra money to purchase and ship what is essentially water. Cost savings associated with purchasing concentrated chemicals can be as high as 30 percent. The use of diluted chemicals reduces product packaging waste and, as a result, can ultimately affect waste disposal costs for a given building. Depending on the size of the operation and the volume of materials used and stored throughout the building or facility, concentrated chemicals may make it possible to shrink the area occupied by janitorial storage closets and offer opportunities to lease these areas for other purposes, such as tenant storage space.

Product Selection Criteria

Standards for janitorial paper products, trash liners, and hand soaps are common in green cleaning guidelines. Paper products and trash liners should be selected with high recycled-fiber content to reduce the consumption of virgin timber used to manufacture these items. Using products derived from rapidly renewable fiber sources (which can be planted and harvested in fewer than ten years) reduces the demand for fiber from old-growth forests. Products that use efficient packaging, as well as recyclable packaging and shipping cartons, should be selected so these materials can be diverted from landfills.

Antimicrobial hand soaps may pose a significant health impact beyond their sanitary intent, according to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Using antimicrobial soaps should be discouraged because they contribute to the mutation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria by increasing the resistance of pathogens to antibiotics. According to the American Medical Association, antibacterial agents triclosan and triclocarban—the active antimicrobial agents in many soaps—has been linked to allergies, immune system disruptions, and hormone-related problems. The FDA is now requiring proof that antibacterial soaps are safer and more effective than plain soap and water, as packaging often claims.

When selecting cleaning products, ecolabels can serve as reliable resources for identifying options that are both effective and environmentally safe. Products certified by Green Seal, Environmental Choice, and others have been audited to ensure compliance with very specific specifications.

According to Diversey, a global provider of commercial cleaning, sanitation, and hygiene solutions, most green alternatives for cleaning chemicals are cost-neutral. Cost advantages emerge from purchasing efficiencies created by replacing many different usage-specific cleaning products with one ecolabeled cleaner.

As there are many cleaning chemical products and vendors on the market, it can be difficult to judge from product labeling the best solutions to buy. The following are general criteria to consider as you select which products to purchase:

  • No ozone-depleting substances
  • Reduced bio-concentration factors
  • Lower flammability risks
  • No dyes, except when added for safety purposes
  • Minimized, reduced, or eliminated fragrances
  • Few or no skin irritants
  • Low or no VOCs

Equipment Selection and Use

Cleaning equipment should not be selected solely based on the ability to maintain building cleanliness, but also on its ability to reduce potential damage to surfaces and furniture.

Common criteria to consider as you determine strategies for pursuing green equipment and supplies are:

  • Purchase vacuum cleaners that are certified by the Carpet & Rug Institute “Green Label” Testing Program for vacuum cleaners.
  • Use carpet extraction equipment for restorative deep cleaning that is certified by the Carpet & Rug Institute’s “Seal of Approval” Testing Program for deep-cleaning extractors.
  • Ensure powered floor maintenance equipment, including electric and battery-powered floor buffers and burnishers, is equipped with vacuums, guards, and/or other devices for capturing fine particulates, and that it operates with a sound level of less than 70 decibels.
  • Pursue the use of propane-powered floor equipment that has high-efficiency, low-emissions engines with catalytic converters and mufflers that meet the California Air Resources Board (CARB) or EPA standards for the specific engine size, and that it operates with a sound level of less than 90 decibels.
  • Focus on automated scrubbing machines that use only tap water with no added cleaning products, or scrubbing machines equipped with variable-speed feed pumps and on-board chemical metering to optimize the use of cleaning fluids.

Ergonomics and Noise Levels

Ergonomics and noise levels associated with equipment selection should also be addressed to minimize health concerns for occupants and cleaning staff. Both groups benefit from cleaning equipment that is designed to trap dust and other fine particles rather than redistribute them into the breathing zone. The improved IEQ achieved by reducing both noise levels and dust provides a healthier environment for cleaning staff and other building occupants. The use of quiet HEPA vacuums and non-VOC cleaners could allow daytime cleaning, which can save lighting, heating, and cooling energy costs typical of nighttime cleaning schedules. If daytime cleaning is not feasible, then cleaning crews should be encouraged to perform section-by-section cleaning, completing all tasks in an area before moving to the next. This allows more efficient use of lighting and conditioning.

This article is adapted from BOMI International’s course High-Performance Sustainable Building Practices, part of the High-Performance designation program. More information regarding this course is available by calling 1-800-235-2664. Visit BOMI International’s website,