Incorporating a Green Cleaning Policy in Your Building

Because of the environmental and human health benefits associated with cleaning practices, the LEED© for Existing Buildings (LEED-EB) Rating System has incorporated credits that reward green cleaning. Green cleaning provides an excellent opportunity for enhancing a building’s sustainability without expending large sums of money, and is a good start point for greening up your building. The following article considers the benefits green cleaning and the process of implementing a green cleaning program, with insights from Stephen Ashkin, President of the Ashkin Group and member of the USGBC’s LEED-EB Committee. The Ashkin Group is a consulting group that promotes and provides services for green cleaning (

The Benefits of Green Cleaning

A major benefit of green cleaning is that it minimizes the environmental and health concerns associated with conventional cleaning practices. Many traditional products are derived from non-renewable natural resources and can be toxic to human health and cause long-term environmental problems. It is critical to recognize that the solution to these problems is not to clean less, as cleaning is essential to protecting occupant well being and safety. Rather, the solution is the selection and use of appropriate cleaning and maintenance products. Using cleaning technologies that utilize rapidly renewable derived resources without sacrificing quality, performance, or adding additional cost has tremendous life cycle advantages.

According to Stephen Ashkin, “The introduction of Green Cleaning products and processes can offer enormous economic, environmental and health benefit and LEED-EB provides a roadmap to help put all the pieces of the puzzle together. It’s no longer business as usual, but a way to create a sustainable and more productive future with a very handsome return on the investment.”

Health Issues

Cleaning products can contribute to indoor air quality problems as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) evaporate and are circulated through the building’s ventilation system. Cleaning products can also leave residues that cause eye and skin irritation, can be absorbed through the skin to affect health, can be accidentally ingested to cause poisoning, and can be inadvertently mixed to cause fatal gases and fires. These risks affect the health of building occupants and cleaning workers. Cleaner, safer, healthier buildings boost occupant health and productivity, making green cleaning a sound investment.

Nearly 3.5 million cleaning industry employees in the US are exposed to chemicals and other materials while cleaning and maintaining buildings. Ashkin notes the seriousness of this exposure from a health standpoint, because “many of the older technologies still being utilized in our buildings are formulated using ingredients that are carcinogenic, reproductive toxins, endocrine modifiers, respiratory irritants, and persistent bioaccumulative toxins.” LEED-EB addresses the human health dangers associated with cleaning by promoting safer, environmental preferable cleaning products and appropriate training for product users.

Environmental Issues

Cleaning products can cause environmental degradation throughout their lifecycle. Each year, 6 billion pounds of chemicals are used to clean commercial buildings. The majority of these products are formulated from ingredients derived from nonrenewable resources. The consumption of natural resource for cleaning goes beyond cleaning chemicals. Stephen Ashkin states that, “in addition to cleaning chemicals, the commercial cleaning industry consumes approximately 4.5 billion pounds of janitorial paper products which requires the cutting of an estimated 25 to 50 million trees. Not only does this have an enormous impact on forest and related natural systems, but the processing and bleaching of this paper consume huge quantities of water and energy, while the wastes are contaminated with some of the most deadly compounds known to man (i.e. dioxins). The paper products required by LEED-EB are made with post-consumer recycled fiber and encourage chlorine-free bleaching processes and resource minimization.”

Once used, cleaning products contribute to air pollution by releasing volatile organic compounds into the air through evaporation. This affects indoor air quality, leading to health problems in building occupants, and also contributes to fog in outdoor air. The use of cleaning products can also contribute to water pollution. Although wastewater treatment systems typically remove chemicals found in cleaning products, inadequately treated water containing cleaning products can be toxic to aquatic species. Also, products containing phosphorus or nitrogen contribute to nutrient-loading in water bodies, lowering water quality (EPA Guide for Federal Purchasers—Greening Your Purchase of Cleaning Products,

Economic Issues

Because demand and technology for green cleaning products is growing, in most cases green products are comparably priced with convention products. Any additional investment in green cleaning supplies and equipment is quickly offset by the economic benefits associated with their reduced impact on human health. Custodial workers suffer a high number of injuries in comparison to other job categories, and many of these injuries are a result of exposure to hazardous cleaning chemicals. Green products reduce worker’s compensation by lowering injuries, as well as owner liability. Green cleaning practices can also reduce turnover among custodial workers, as a portion of turnover is related to individuals leaving the profession in order to reduce their exposure to toxic chemicals.

Another economic benefit is related to occupant productivity. By replacing products that negatively affect indoor environmental quality, the health and productivity of all building occupants is improved. This reduces absenteeism and health care costs, and improves worker productivity, which leads to increased profitability.

Green Cleaning in LEED-EB

By incorporating green cleaning credits into LEED-EB, the USGBC is expanding awareness and demand for green cleaning. According to Ashkin, who’s consulting firm assists organizations in implementing green cleaning programs, “if the mission of the US Green Building Council is to help be a catalyst to transform industry, then the LEED-EB Rating System is having an overwhelming transformation impact on the cleaning industry. LEED-EB is creating a huge demand for Green Cleaning products and makes it both easy and profitable for manufacturers to redesign their products and service offerings. For example, since the launch of the LEED-EB Pilot Program, the number of chemical manufacturers with Green Seal “certified” products has more than tripled.”

Three of the five credit categories in the LEED-EB Rating System include credits pertaining to green cleaning products and practices. These standards can be used as a roadmap for integrating a comprehensive green cleaning plan in your building. View summaries of LEED-EB green cleaning credits below, or download the entire LEED-EB Rating System online.

  • Sustainable Sites Credit 1: Plan for Green Site and Building Exterior Management
    This credit offers up to 2 points for an exterior site management plan that includes, among other things, developing a policy for sustainably cleaning and maintaining the building exterior.
  • Materials & Resources Credit 4: Sustainable Cleaning Products and Materials
    This credit offers up to 3 points for the implementing a purchasing program for cleaning materials and products, disposable janitorial paper products, and trash bags that meet sustainability criteria.
  • Indoor Environmental Quality 10.1: Green Cleaning—Entryway Systems
    This credit offers 1 point for the use of entryway systems (grills, grates, mats, etc.) that reduce the amount of dirt, dust, pollen, and other particles entering the building, and for the use of cleaning strategies to maintain entryways and exterior walkways.
  • Indoor Environmental Quality 10.2: Green Cleaning—Isolation of Janitorial Closets
    This credit offers 1 point for the proper isolation of janitorial closets. Isolation measures include deck-to-deck partitions with separate exhausting, no air re-circulation, negative pressure in all closets, and hot and cold water and drains plumbed for appropriate disposal of liquid wastes.
  • Indoor Environmental Quality 10.3: Green Cleaning—Cleaning Policy
    This credit offers 1 point for the adoption of a green cleaning policy. The policy should include the use of sustainable cleaning systems, sustainable cleaning products, chemical concentrates and dilution systems, programs for the proper training of maintenance personnel, hand soaps not containing antimicrobial agents excepts where required by code, and cleaning equipment that reduces impacts on IAQ.
  • Indoor Environmental Quality 10.4-10.5:Green Cleaning—Pest Management Policy
    This credit offers up to two points for the development and implementation of an integrated indoor pest management policy that minimizes the use of toxic pesticides.

Tips for Implementing Green Cleaning Policies

Stephen Ashkin offers the following tips for facility managers and building owners looking to adopt green cleaning policies:

  1. Work with knowledgeable vendors
    Unless you’re an expert on the subject, try to identify vendors or service providers that have experience with green cleaning. This is a lot easier than trying to teach them (the vendors). Experience with LEED-EB and the green cleaning “roadmap” it offers is a real plus.
  2. Assess your current situation
    Before starting your program, determine your starting point by conducting a simple audit. This will help you recognize all opportunities for improvement and build a better plan. Also, as part of your plan you may need to evaluate your cleaning budget. Unfortunately, you may be paying the same amount per square foot as the building next door, but many are only paying for acceptable appearances and minimal tenant complaints. Today, while green cleaning products and services are competitively priced compared to traditional products, you may find that you need to invest more in cleaning to achieve the health, performance, productivity and other potential benefits to be had. Please consider it – you may find an outstanding return on the investment.
  3. Have a comprehensive plan
    Recognize that while simply switching to a few “green” products or equipment is a good thing, this is not enough. For best results, implement a comprehensive program that includes the chemicals, paper, equipment, entry mats, tools, etc. And keep in mind that 80% to 90% of the cleaning budget is labor, so don’t forget training and winning the “buy-in” from your janitorial staff. Remember, change is hard and the people on the ground level can make or break your program.
  4. Engage the building occupants
    The real objective of a green cleaning program is to help us become “stewards” of our buildings – caring not only for the structure, materials, finishes, office equipment, etc., but ultimately ensuring the wellbeing of the people in our buildings. Being good stewards requires that individual occupants recognize and take responsibility for their actions. For example, by properly separating their recyclables from the trash, or minimizing crumbs and other food sources that attract pests. Education and ongoing communication is essential to help everyone recognize that unless we each do our part, we can’t create the healthiest, most productive building with the least environmental impacts.

Green Cleaning Resources

Green Cleaning Case Study
This case study presents information about how UNICCO Integrated Facilities Services transitioned from traditional cleaning practices to green cleaning.

US EPA Environmentally Preferable Purchasing
This web site has specific background information on a host of issues relative to environmentally preferable purchasing.

Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS
The CHPS Operations & Maintenance Manual offers tips for implementing Green Cleaning.

US EPA Office of Pesticide Programs
This site includes tool for implementing Integrated Pest Management (IPM) programs.

The Ashkin Group
This consulting firm, headed by Stephen Ashkin (member of the USGBC’s LEED-EB Committee), provides information and services related to green cleaning.

Green Seal
This non-profit group certifies green products that cause less toxic pollution and waste than convention products, including cleaners. A list of certified products can be found on their web site.

To Learn More About LEED-EB

Please visit the USGBC and LEED home pages for more information about LEED-EB

Training workshops on LEED-EB are offered around the country. You can find times and locations on the USGBC’s Events Training Calendar.

Stay tuned to FM Link

The USGBC will be providing a series of practical articles on LEED-EB implementation for facility managers. Upcoming articles will address Commissioning and LEED-EB, Green Landscaping and Site Management, Energy Efficiency, Energy Star and LEED-EB, Measuring and Monitoring for LEED-EB Success, Implementing LEED-EB in Your Organization, and other topics of interest to facility managers.

Headquartered in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Green Building Council is the nation’s leading coalition for the advancement of buildings that are environmentally responsible, profitable, and healthy places to live and work. Established in 1993, the Council offers various products and services to include the LEED Green Building Rating System, an annual International Green Building Conference and Exposition, membership summits, information exchange, education, and policy advocacy.

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