Green Spotlight on Operations and Maintenance

Q:  What areas of the operations and maintenance of a building have the greatest environmental/health impacts?

A:  Approximately eight billion pounds of chemicals are used just to clean the commercial and institutional buildings in the United States each year.  And, for every pound of finished product, there can be 10 times that amount used during the manufacturing process.  The impacts from the extraction of raw materials, their manufacture, transportation, use and disposal are huge—with the greatest environmental impacts occurring in the extraction and disposal stages.

Many problems are inherent in traditional maintenance products.  Most of them are derived from petroleum, a non-renewable resource.  Also, paper products used in commercial office buildings are typically bleached with chlorine.  While many producers have reluctantly converted to bleaching with chlorine dioxide, both processes contribute dioxins and furans into the waste stream, which are some of the most toxic ingredients on earth.  During the disposal stage, many traditional maintenance products are slow to biodegrade and some very common surfactants, like detergents, are thought to be estrogen mimics.  Moreover, solvents used in degreasers and propellants for aerosolized products contribute to smog.

Finally, these products can have an enormous impact on human health while they are being used.  Toxic products such as pesticides are specifically designed to kill living organisms and are extremely hazardous to use indoors.  In addition, many common cleaning ingredients, such as chlorine and ammonia, will produce deadly gases when spilled or inadvertently mixed and pose a serious risk to building occupants.  Products that contain significant amounts of VOCs, such as aerosol cleaners, deodorizers and glass cleaners can impact the occupants as they are circulated throughout the building by the HVAC system. Other operations such as carpet cleaning or stripping floor coatings have significant impacts during the drying process.  They often fill the building with its vapors, which can directly affect occupants or, in the case of carpets, lead to the growth of fungi which can have serious results.

Q:  What is green housekeeping?  How does this process differ from standard practice?

A:  Green housekeeping addresses five areas: 1) It searches for ways to reduce the toxicity of products; 2) Optimizes procedures to clean only what is necessary without excess product use; 3) Utilizes the most efficient equipment; 4) Trains both the custodians and occupants on how best to maintain the indoor environment; 5) And, finally, creates communication opportunities to generate an atmosphere of continual improvement.  Green housekeeping has a focus on health and the need to understand the building itself (including its purpose) and its occupants.

The success of traditional cleaning programs is typically measured by the frequency of occupant complaints.  So if the bathrooms are well stocked, trashcans emptied and the little white dots from the three-hole punch are picked up off of the carpets, then the cleaning program is considered successful.  There is virtually no consideration of the types or quantities of chemicals used.  If anything, there is an incentive to use more aggressive and typically more toxic cleaning agents because they can perform cleaning jobs faster.

Additionally, in traditional cleaning programs, contracts are awarded based on the lowest cost to perform specified duties in a certain frequency.  This approach basically results in a calculation of labor rates (usually 80% to 90% of total cost), plus a small amount for disposables.  An increase or decrease of 10% or even 20% for disposable supplies has very little impact on the overall cost.  For real change to take place, building owners and managers must recognize the issues at hand and begin to write janitorial contracts differently.

Q:  Specifically, what are the benefits of green O&M?  What examples or statistics can you cite?

A:  There are many benefits of green housekeeping besides the obvious—reducing environmental impacts from hazardous products as they are used and disposed—which, at eight billion pounds per year, can be quite substantial.  Because employee wages and benefits in a commercial office building are approximately $300 per square foot and janitorial services are only about $1.30, even the tiniest changes in housekeeping procedures can result in productivity gains.  For instance, controlling germs and viruses can result in fewer illnesses and increase the productivity and performance level of all employees.

From a building owner and manager’s perspective, green housekeeping can increase tenant satisfaction and minimize risk and liability.  Furthermore, in competitive markets, such a program can create a competitive edge by making a building more desirable.

Finally, green housekeeping offers significant benefits to building occupants and their employers, building owners and the environment.  And when these advantages can be obtained at no increase in cost, it is easy to understand why green housekeeping should march on according to the words of Victor Hugo:  “Nothing, not all the armies of the world, can stop an idea that’s time has come.”

Steve Ashkin, director of Product Development and Environmental Affairs for Seventh Generation, Inc., can smile, knowing that his company is the nation’s leading manufacturer of environmentally preferable household cleaning and paper products.  He was chair of the committee that wrote the national standard on Cleaning Commercial & Institutional Buildings, and his Green Housekeeping Program has been utilized in the Pittsburgh Public Schools and adopted as the model for all public schools throughout Pennsylvania, as well as for all of the General Service Administration’s 7,700 federal office buildings around the country.

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