Green Cleaning

Green cleaning is the use of cleaning products, supplies, and equipment that damage neither human health nor the environment.  A few criteria that differentiate green cleaning products from more traditional products are  renewable or sustainably harvested raw materials, nontoxic ingredients, responsible manufacturing, biodegradable packaging, and capacity for safe disposal or reuse.

Why Clean Green?

The biggest concern with many typical cleaning products is their adverse effect on indoor air quality.  People spend around 90% of their time inside, which is where most exposure to pollutants occurs.  Indoor air is often 2 to 5 times as polluted as outdoor air, and in certain cases can be many times worse.  That “fresh” smell associated with a recently cleaned building may in fact be produced by compounds that are harmful to human health.  Without proper ventilation, toxins can collect inside and cause respiratory or other health symptoms.  Even common cleaning products sometimes contain carcinogens, allergens, hormone disruptors, and various other harsh or toxic chemicals.  Repeated exposure to these compounds has been linked to symptoms ranging from headaches, depression, allergies, and rashes to decreased fertility or cancer.  According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, cleaning products are one of the top five substance classes involved in reported toxic exposures.

Aside from health effects, it is also important to consider the impact of products on the environment, in their extraction and manufacture as well as where they end up.  Cleaning products that go down the drain can be especially harmful, and some are known to bioaccumulate in wildlife.  As another example, detergents are conventionally made from petroleum, a high-impact, nonrenewable resource.  Billions of pounds of paper towels and toilet paper are used each year, often bleached and from virgin pulp, and even warm-air hand dryers have a surprisingly large carbon footprint.  Green cleaning at its best is an integrative process that includes cleaning supplies, equipment, and fixtures, as well as the cleaning products themselves.

There is currently no third-party organization dedicated to testing and regulating cleaning products.  Labels that claim a product is “natural,” “environmentally friendly,” or “non-toxic” are virtually meaningless, as those terms have not been defined with set standards and therefore are an easy way of greenwashing customers.  Likewise, “unscented” can easily mean there are fragrant compounds in a product to mask unpleasant chemical smells.  There is no requirement for companies to list the ingredients in their cleaning products, which results in words like “fragrance” or “carrier” appearing on labels.  Look for brands that do disclose ingredients to make it easier to avoid toxins.

Green cleaning is an important component of indoor environmental quality.  A green cleaning policy is a prerequisite under LEED for Existing Buildings: Operations and Maintenance v2009, and there are six credits available for other green cleaning practices (EQc3.1 High performance green cleaning program; EQc3.2 Custodial effectiveness assessment; EQc3.3 Purchase of sustainable cleaning products and services; EQc3.4 Sustainable cleaning equipment; EQc3.5 Indoor chemical and pollutant source control; EQc3.6 Indoor integrated pest management).  In LEED v4, the prerequisite and several of the credits will still apply, although some are slightly recategorized.  See the LEED v4 credit library for details.

green cleaning

Green cleaning (flickr: athriftymrs.com)

Types/Products

Labels and certifications that can help consumers choose green cleaning products include Green Seal, Greenguard, Cradle to Cradle, EcoLogo, BioPreferred, and the EPA’s Design for the Environment (DfE).  The Transpare product registry and the Environmental Working Group Guide to Healthy Cleaning are good places to find additional safety information on various cleaning products.

Cleaning needs vary widely based on building size and use.  For commercial buildings, it’s worthwhile to consider sustainably sourced paper products, biodegradable trashcan liners, high-speed hand dryers, and efficient equipment in addition to nonhazardous cleaning products.  Some janitorial service providers specialize in green cleaning while others may be willing to adopt new practices.  A knowledgeable cleaning staff is especially important in healthcare facilities, schools, or other buildings where cross-contamination or improper disinfecting of “touch points” could pose serious problems.

Green cleaning in the home is simpler.  Green cleaning products are very cost-competitive, and homemade cleaners can even help save money!  Microfiber cloths and cleaning solutions made of baking soda, vinegar, castile soap, and other common ingredients are sufficient for most household applications.  Here are a few easy recipes to try:

  • All-purpose cleaner: Mix 1 part white vinegar to 1 part water in a spray bottle. 
  • Multipurpose scrub: Mix baking soda with enough water to make a wet paste.  Put paste on a sponge or brush and scrub.  This scrub is good for sinks, stoves, tubs, fridges, and counters.  For countertop stains, let the paste sit for a while on stains before scrubbing.  Sprinkle on kosher salt for tough spots. 
  • Disinfectant: Mix 2 cups water, 1 tablespoon liquid castile soap, and 1 teaspoon tea tree oil. 
  • Glass cleaner: Combine 1/4 cup rubbing alcohol, 1/4 cup white vinegar, 1 tablespoon cornstarch, and 2 cups warm water in a spray bottle.  Shake well.  Wipe glass surfaces with newspaper to reduce streaks. 
  • Laundry detergent: Mix 1 cup soap flakes, 1/2 cup washing soda, 1/2 cup baking soda, and 1-2 tablespoons oxygen bleach (optional). 
  • Toilet bowl: Sprinkle toilet bowl with baking soda, drizzle with vinegar, let soak for at least 30 minutes and scrub with toilet brush. 
  • Drain cleaner: Pour 1/2 cup baking soda into drain followed by 1 cup vinegar. Let it sit and fizz for 15 minutes, then rinse with hot or boiling water. 
  • Air freshener: Set out fresh or dried flowers.  Alternatively, boil a pot of water with cinnamon, vanilla, slices of lemon, or other spices.  Deodorize carpet or the fridge with baking soda. 

Advantages

  • Protect the health of building occupants
  • Reduce costs associated with sick leave, poor productivity, and low retention rates
  • Decrease pollution, resource depletion, and global climate change