The importance of adopting green cleaning practices at education institutions is growing; in many cases, green cleaning is not just an option, but a necessity. More than 20 states have adopted some type of policy or legislation that focuses on green cleaning as a method to help achieve sustainability goals. In addition, many states encourage or mandate that K-12 schools adopt green cleaning programs and practices.
As more schools and universities adopt green cleaning programs, cleaning professionals should learn the basics of choosing green products and how they fit into a complete and balanced approach to cleaning and disinfecting.
What is Green Cleaning?
According to the Healthy Schools Campaign, an independent, not-for-profit advocate for healthful school environments, green cleaning is about not only choosing the right cleaning products and equipment to use, but also following green cleaning policies and procedures and training employees properly. When all of these elements come together, they help create an effective green cleaning program.
Green cleaning products generally are manufactured with positive environmental attributes such as low toxicity and low volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are ideal for use by custodial staff, particularly during day cleaning around students and faculty. In addition, many green cleaners are formulated to perform efficiently and effectively, especially products that are tested and recognized by credible third parties.
Experts recommend that facilities choose green cleaners that are certified by third-parties such as Green Seal and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Design for the Environment (DfE). The Green Seal and DfE recognitions are given to products whose formulations and packaging have the least possible impact on the environment and clean effectively. In order to earn these certifications, a product must meet the environmental standard for its category as demonstrated through rigorous evaluation and testing.
Education institutions should choose green cleaning products that do a job effectively. Whether using concentrated cleaners (e.g., a mounted wall dilution system), ready-to-use products or a combination of both, schools should choose cleaning products that complement one another as part of an overall bundled approach.
To further help schools choose appropriate environmentally friendly products, the EPA developed the following guidelines:
1. Include environmental factors as well as traditional considerations of price and performance as part of the normal purchasing process.
2. Emphasize pollution prevention early in the purchasing process.
3. Examine multiple environmental attributes throughout a product’s or service’s life cycle.
4. Compare relative environmental impacts when selecting products and services.
5. Collect and base purchasing decisions on accurate information about environmental performance.
Green Clean Where Possible
More than 56 million students and 6 million staff attend U.S. schools, so the continued upkeep of the learning environment is important. When protocols are adopted and followed correctly, green cleaning can help reduce the levels of mold, airborne dust and indoor triggers of allergies in school buildings, which often have four times the number of occupants per square foot than most office buildings, according to the New York State Office of General Services.
In addition to contributing to a more healthful environment, green cleaning programs can help schools and universities comply with sustainability goals. The U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for Schools program helps administrators improve the quality of their building’s indoor spaces. Even small choices, such as switching to greener cleaning products, can help a school progress toward LEED certification.
According to the Green Schools Initiative, an organization that advocates for high-performance, cost-efficient and academically excellent schools, effective green cleaning programs should have these elements:
•Place walkoff mats in doorway entries to keep dirt out of classrooms.
•Train staff on proper cleaning and product disposal practices.
•Read all product labels before use, and properly dilute concentrated products according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
•Purchase products that are formulated to work together as a system.
The Right Balance
This winter the country saw increases in flu and norovirus cases, and many schools had to close temporarily to be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, norovirus results every year in more than 70,000 hospitalizations and 800 deaths, mostly among children and the elderly. Likewise, the flu can affect up to 20 percent of Americans, and flu-related complications cause more than 200,000 hospitalizations each year.
As effective as green cleaners are on dirt and soils, they are not designed to disinfect surfaces against harmful pathogens. In K-12 facilities and university campuses, where crowded spaces are the norm, disinfecting must be part of the cleaning equation to prevent the spread of viruses such as influenza and norovirus.
Every facility’s first step in preventing the spread of germs that cause illness should be to disinfect frequently touched surfaces such as door handles, faucets, light switches and desks with disinfectants that are EPA-registered to kill germs such as flu and norovirus. For disinfection to be effective, workers must read the product label and make sure the product remains wet on the surface for the time recommended on the product label.
Custodial directors should choose disinfecting products that are appropriate for the task and that complement other cleaning products used.
Sidebar: Tips for Creating a Balanced Cleaning Program
To keep education facility environments more healthful and to prevent the spread of illness-causing germs, custodial directors should consider a balanced cleaning approach that incorporates both green cleaners and disinfectants.
Education institutions should keep several factors in mind when trying to establish a complete, balanced cleaning approach.
When choosing green products, look for:
•Proof of efficacy: Will the products effectively do the job you need them to do?
•Third-party environmental certifications (e.g., Green Seal, DfE).
•Disclosure of ingredients: Do the products provide a full list of their ingredients on the label or the manufacturer’s website?
When choosing disinfectants, look for:
•Proof of efficacy: Will the products do the job effectively?
•EPA-registered disinfectants with kill claims against pathogens of most concern (e.g., influenza, norovirus, MRSA).
•Fast contact times: Will the products kill harmful bacteria and viruses quickly?
Day is a scientist for Clorox Professional Products, Oakland, Calif. She has worked in research and development for the company for more than eight years.