Green Cleaning: Open Minds

It's hard these days to pick up a magazine or newspaper without reading something about “green.” Governments, institutions, environmentalists, health advocates and businesses are jumping on the bandwagon.

Discussion of green schools typically focuses on how they affect the environment — issues such as energy consumption, daylighting, resource depletion, recycled materials, climate change and sustainability. Also, a green approach considers how building design and operations affect the health and performance of occupants.

But this article, and future columns, will be focused on a small piece of the puzzle — cleaning. This may seem like an insignificant piece, but schools and universities spend significant sums to clean facilities. What often is overlooked in the discussion about green buildings is how cleaning affects the environment.

For example, did you know that institutional and commercial cleaning in the United States is a $140 billion industry? Or that schools and universities are one of the largest segments purchasing the products and services of the cleaning industry?

The cleaning industry annually uses 6 billion pounds of chemicals to clean and maintain buildings. Most of these products are made from valuable, but limited natural resources; some products put cleaning personnel at risk and damage the environment during their use and disposal.

The cleaning industry also uses 4.5 billion pounds of janitorial paper products such as toilet tissue and paper towels. Most of this paper is made from virgin tree fiber, which requires the cutting of about 35 million trees and contributes to forest degradation. Manufacturing the paper products also affects the environment.

And then there's the powered equipment such as vacuums and floor machines, and other items — entryway mats, trash cans, mop buckets and carts. Eventually, they are disposed of and contribute more than 1 billion pounds each year to landfills — enough to fill 20,000 garbage trucks. Then, these items are replaced with 1 billion pounds of new stuff.

The point is not to suggest that we are irreversibly harming our planet or human health because we clean. Cleaning is essential to protecting public health and buildings. The point is that it is important to stop “business as usual” and consider green cleaning alternatives that will result in clean, safe, healthful and productive schools.

In November 2006, the Green Cleaning Network was formed. Its mission is to encourage collaboration and to provide information, education and best practices on green cleaning. Founding members include the U.S. Green Building Council, Healthy Schools Campaign, Hospitals for a Healthy Environment, Responsible Purchasing Network and the International Executive Housekeepers Association.

Ashkin is executive director of the Green Cleaning Network, a 501(c)3 not-for-profit educational organization. [email protected]

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