Until recently, the words green and sustainable were viewed as two separate entities. For example: If a facility manager were to say
that his or her facility was green, he or she did not necessarily mean it was also sustainable, and the reverse was often true, as well.
The green movement began to gain momentum in the United States when President Bill Clinton issued Executive Order 13101 in 1998. When President George W. Bush was in office, he expanded on it by issuing Executive Order 13423 in 2007. Based on this order, green has traditionally referred to products or services that have a reduced impact on health and the environment when compared to conventional, nongreen products. The definition does not imply that traditional cleaning products are inherently “bad;” it just suggests the use of healthier alternatives.
Sustainability has held a couple of definitions throughout the years, but both definitions seem to separate the term from green. For instance, a 1987 report from the United Nations’ World Commission on Environment and Development, addressed the idea of sustainability by defining “sustainable development” as “development [that] meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Today sustainability usually refers to the “triple bottom line,” which is made up of social, environmental, and economic factors that impact a business’s overall strategy.
However, under close examination, we can see that green and sustainability are closely related. For instance, when comparing an “environmentally preferable” green cleaning product to a traditional product, the executive order states, “This comparison may consider raw materials acquisition, product, manufacturing, packaging, distribution, reuse, operation, maintenance, or disposal of the product or service.”
Flash forward to 2015: What has begun to evolve, and may continue to grow in the future, is the concept of “sustainable green cleaning.” Essentially this is the use of green cleaning tools, cleaning solutions, and equipment that:
- Make facilities greener and healthier
- Have a reduced impact on the environment
- Promote and ensure environmental, social, and economic benefits
- Reduce our use of natural resources of all kinds—from petroleum and energy to paper products.
Training and Sustainability
Custodial training and education are key components of sustainable green cleaning that help to ensure cleaning is not only healthier for users and the environment, but also promotes sustainability.
Going back to the early days of green cleaning when facilities and organizations were first implementing green cleaning strategies, the emphasis was on using these new, environmentally preferable cleaning products properly. This often meant training cleaning professionals along with teaching them more advanced cleaning practices and methodologies. This is still a key consideration today.
When it comes to training employees, a great deal of the sustainability component involves the usage of cleaning products. For instance, cleaning professionals often do not properly dilute solutions, and as a result, use more chemical than necessary. This is not only wasteful, making it unsustainable, but it can also reduce or even negate some of a green cleaning strategy's benefits by increasing, rather than reducing, health and environmental problems; decreasing worker productivity; and—because we know more does not mean better in professional cleaning—negatively affecting actual cleaning results.
Additionally, while it may seem marginal, diluting cleaning products also uses more water, which can add up significantly, and can also be wasteful if diluted improperly. The proper use of these cleaning solutions is not only a requirement for an effective green cleaning program, but it also helps ensure their sustainability benefits, as well.
Creating a Sustainable Green Cleaning Program
When creating a sustainable green cleaning program, one of the first things to focus on is its goals—in other words, the essence of the strategy. While the strategy will likely address a number of issues, among the most important are:
- Protecting the health and safety of custodial workers and building users
- Providing training and ongoing custodial education
- Committing to an ongoing effort to improve cleaning worker performance and productivity
- Reducing facility operating costs, not only in cleaning but in all building operations
- Promoting sustainability, again not only in cleaning, but in all building operations
- Selecting cleaning products that are not only green, but also produced by manufacturers that consider the entire lifecycle of the product from cradle to grave.
Implementing the program typically involves building managers, cleaning workers, building users, and distributors. In fact, distributors play a vital role in ensuring that a sustainable green cleaning program meets its green and sustainability objectives.
When transferring to an environmentally preferable cleaning program, the first step is to analyze what products the facility currently uses, which have greener or more sustainable alternatives, and which it can eliminate entirely. During this process, a distributor’s knowledge of green and sustainable cleaning products can help facilities make wise choices.
Facilities may favor the purchase of cleaning solutions that can be used for multiple and similar tasks. In one case, more than 30 cleaning products were reduced to just four environmentally preferable and more sustainable cleaning products after completing an analysis. Not only was this a cost savings for the organization, but it also significantly reduced the waste of materials and resources involved in the entire product chain, from manufacturing and delivering these products to disposing them.
However, what happened to the 26 cleaning solutions that were no longer needed? In a case like this, should a company dispose of them?
The answer is, “No.” In a sustainable green cleaning program where waste reduction is an issue, the facility should return the products to the distributor and switch them out for greener or more sustainable alternatives. Another option is to use them until they are empty and then properly dispose of them. Green cleaning is a journey; replacing these traditional products immediately or over time is part of moving forward in the quest to becoming greener and more sustainable.
Another key component in a sustainable green cleaning program is having a benchmark. However, this benchmark should be much broader than documenting what traditional cleaning products were once used and which green ones the facility uses now.
This benchmark should also include the following:
- A before and after look at the cleaning program, including the steps that have been taken to implement and improve a waste and recycling program. Be sure to track progress.
- The comparison of energy and water use at the beginning of the program and after implementation to see if the facility has become more water- and energy-efficient.
- A method for tracking absenteeism and surveying building users for feedback about the health of their facility to see if these metrics have improved.
With an effective sustainable green cleaning program in place, it should be readily apparent what steps have been implemented, what successes have been achieved, and where improvements may still be necessary. And while this journey may be a bit difficult to start, over time it will get easier and gain momentum as the mindset shifts and more administrators, building users, and custodial workers find ways to make the facility greener, healthier, and more sustainable.