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Chemical-free Cleaning / Sustainability
March 2014 Feature 3

The Evolution Of Chemical-free Cleaning

Nature can provide some of what is needed to clean safely and effectively.

March 06, 2014
KEYWORDS chemical / green / nature / soils / toxic / water
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Over the past several years, green cleaning products have become increasingly less toxic while delivering comparable results to their traditional counterparts.

This, in part, is due to the emerging science of using plant, bio-based and simple tap water formulations that target soils and harmful bacteria instead of eradicating large swaths of microorganisms.

We are slowly realizing that nature can also provide us with some of what we need to safely and effectively clean surfaces without the use of toxic substances.

Taking the notion of environmentally preferable cleaning a step further, some companies have developed non-toxic, chemical-free innovations.

This industry has begun to explore this idea of less harmful cleaning strategies, including completely non-toxic, chemical-free substitutes and technologies that use no chemicals — natural or otherwise — to achieve more effective cleaning results.

We are evolving beyond green to extreme green to chemical-free cleaning.

New Options

Things like electrolyzed water, which separates tap water into positive and negative streams that attract soils and render harmful bacteria inert, have emerged as the new go-to solutions.

Other cosmopolitan, chemical-free technologies like steam vapor and ultraviolet light have begun to emerge as viable solutions to clean sensitive environments such as hospitals and other healthcare facilities.

A recent literature review entitled “Control of the Environment,” which focused on steam vapor as a chemical-free disinfectant, concluded that steam cleaning is effective for periodic deep cleaning of hospital environments.

According to test results, complete disinfection of the test surfaces, which harbored methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), Acinetobacter and Clostridium difficile (C. diff), was achieved.

When coupled with revolutionary materials like microfiber, a synthetic blend of polyester and polyimide whose individual fibers are roughly 1/16 the width of a human hair but are able to hold more than six times their weight in liquid, amazing cleaning results can be achieved with little to no adverse health effects.

The concept of cleaning began with the simplest cleaning chemical: Water.

Now, as we realize that with science we are able to achieve unprecedented results in terms of microbial and soil reduction, our cleaning efforts have come full circle.

A Safer Industry

As the cleaning industry continues to evolve beyond green toward more sustainable practices, manufacturers, distributors and service providers will be expected to demonstrate their commitment not only through their products and services, but also through their internal and external operations.

The push to go green has garnered increased attention over the past decade, and with the logical emergence of chemical-free technologies, some would argue that we have reached the pinnacle of extreme green cleaning.

Now that we are realizing caustic chemicals are no longer needed to achieve clean surfaces, the idea of cleaning with no chemicals will become the new norm in the not too distant future.

The cleaning products and procedures of the past have had serious health and safety impacts on the worker and occupant health and safety.

The cleaning industry has recently been rated by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) as a leading source of workplace injuries, so it is important that we strive to create a safer atmosphere for end-users as well as building occupants.

The more toxic chemicals we can remove from our cleaning operations, the safer and healthier we all will be.

The Next Generation Of Cleaning Chemicals

One group advocating the notion of “extreme green” is the Chemical-free Cleaning Network.

This group, which was founded to identify, develop and share chemical-free cleaning strategies, ideas and solutions, is calling for a change in the way we clean buildings.

Instead of employing manmade and often caustic chemicals to rid surfaces of germs, bacteria and other soils, the Chemical-free Cleaning Network notes viable solutions like steam vapor, ultraviolet light, electrolyzed water and other technologies as safer, cleaner and greener alternatives.

As chemical and equipment manufacturers mature in their offerings, more forward-thinking technologies are born from the notion that non-chemical, non-toxic, carcinogen-free and residue-free cleaning is the best option to protect human, animal and environmental health.

Things like high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtered vacuums, ozone odor control systems and chemical-free floor stripping and refinishing machines are other technologies quickly replacing the chemicals of the past.

These solutions work in conjunction with other green technologies to help produce clean, safe and healthy environments.

We are witnessing that full evolution of the cleaning product continuum, beginning with rudimentary formulations before moving towards caustic chemicals, then less toxic chemicals and eventually chemical-free applications.

Over the years, the continuum has moved from expensive, synthetic and harmful toxins to today’s harmless, natural and, in some instances, chemical-free formulations.

As people have become more aware of the effects of chemicals, they are more inclined to distance themselves from their use.

People are beginning to understand that, in today’s world, green and sustainability are all about eliminating toxins and reducing harm.

Fortunately, it is not only good for the planet, but also good business.

Green-savvy individuals want to do business with like-minded people, which creates a cultural shift in the collective green conscience.

Proof That It Works

As proof of chemical free products ability to successfully and safely remove soils and potentially harmful bacteria, the Toxics Use Reduction Institute (TURI) from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, in conjunction with the International Executive Housekeepers Association’s (IEHA) High-performance Cleaning Product (HPCP) program, scientifically proved activated water’s prowess in cleaning real-world soils as well as or better than chemical-based all-purpose cleaners.

And with recognition from OSHA, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), green certification bodies and countless case studies, there is confirmation that green cleaners — including the extreme green varieties that contain no chemicals at all — work well.

Joined with scientific confirmation from measuring devices like adenosine triphosphate (ATP) meters, which measure the universal energy molecule found in all animal, plant, bacteria, yeast and mold cells, there is evidence that chemical free cleaning is safe, effective and preferable to the haphazard ways of cleaning in the past.

Mandated green cleaning is increasing in popularity as research by organizations like the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which found that ordinary school cleaning supplies can expose children to multiple chemicals including chloroform, benzene and formaldehyde linked to asthma, cancer and other documented health problems, surface.

Studies by the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) have shown that using less toxic and chemical-free cleaning products and processes have effectively reduced the absenteeism rates in schools and have caused a dip in the number of reported asthma and other respiratory ailments associated with the poor air quality.

Whereas the drive to go green previously came from loosely organized grassroots organizations, today’s green push comes from advocacy groups and professional organizations specifically formed to “green” the cleaning products industry, including chemical-free cleaning products.

Instead of leading the push as in the past, governmental bodies, which speak on behalf of the populace and legislate for the greater good, are taking a back seat and allowing the citizens to demand greener, chemical-free cleaning technologies and champion their exclusive use.

The Next Step

It is a truism that the buyer makes the market and directs the industry.

Make the chemical-free products a foundation of the outsourcing specification and scope of work.

The buyer’s specification is the right strategy for moving the entire industry into the future.

The idea of extreme green cleaning, in the minds of many, is the most environmentally preferable way to clean the built environment.

But if history is any indicator of what’s to come, it is only a matter of time before even today’s chemical-free cleaning technologies are replaced with increasingly greener and more effective, less harmful alternatives.

The cleaning industry has the opportunity to reinvent itself, and as the industry becomes greener and more sustainable, the opportunities for growth are enormous — as is the opportunity to make a marked difference in society and on our environmental impact.


Vince Elliott is the founder, president and chief executive officer (CEO) of Elliott Affiliates Ltd. of Hunt Valley, Maryland. For more information on consulting and performance-based measurement, visit He is widely recognized as the leading authority in the design and utilization of best practice, performance-driven techniques for janitorial outsourcing and ongoing management. Elliott is also the founder of the Chemical Free Cleaning Network (CFCN). More information about that initiative can be found at

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