By Dr. Robert W. Powitz — posted 11/04/2008

For as long as I can remember, we in the cleaning industry have emphasized using the best performing products that can do the job in the most economical manner. Now we are being asked to become more environmentally conscious and consider changing some of the things we use and how we use them for the protection of future generations. We envision losing our competitive edge and somehow compromising our bottom line for the sake of ambiguous ideals. We’ve heard the excuses, most of which can be grouped into one sentence: Eco-friendly products do not work and are more expensive. But this is simply not so.

In my career as a professional sanitarian, my quest toward the application of green cleaning was prompted by four primary concerns: employee health, public health, environmental stewardship, and economics. Several major manufacturers of cleaning chemicals already offer product lines that reduce carbon footprint at a competitive cost and feature lower toxicity with significantly greater safety. Granted, the businesses that made the shift to green cleaning also had to make some modifications to their cleaning methodology and invest in education and retraining. However, those businesses had substantially positive results with no economic losses or disruptions to production. Cleaning outcomes were as good—if not better—with eco-friendly products, and employee losses were significantly lowered, due in no small part to staff education and retraining.

To put eco-friendly products into an economic perspective, let’s examine just how large the cleaning chemical market is. Kline & Co., a worldwide consulting and research firm, currently estimated that truly green cleaners account for only 2 percent to 5 percent of the US$17.5 billion worth of products sold in the U.S. cleaning products market for household, janitorial, food-service, and laundry chemicals. But the report goes on to note that many products with “green” components have been available for some time, including concentrates sold with dilution and dispensing systems that require less energy to ship, zinc-free floor finishes, cold-water laundry detergents, and right-sized packaging. So the concept of green cleaning isn’t exactly something new or an uneconomical venture.

In addition to economics, consider the following four factors (in no particular order): ecology, health, safety, and quality of life.

1. Green cleaning is the right thing to do. Our federal government and many state and local governments have already endorsed a push toward environmentally friendly cleaning products and are including eco-friendly criteria for purchasing cleaning products in their RFPs. So have several major hotel chains that depend largely on the aesthetics of presentation.

During my career as a sanitarian, I’ve noticed a decided shift in the public’s perception of environmental health, protection, and concern for the quality of life. From organic foods making inroads into retail food establishments, to smoke-free indoor environments, to a shift away from bottled water, consumer demands and perceptions are significantly changing. Our job has certainly evolved along these societal demands. As the eco-friendly trend continues, I foresee any company that uses green cleaning as part of its marketing strategy will certainly reap a benefit by appreciably improving its market share.

2. Eco-friendly cleaning helps preserve employee health. Janitorial and cleaning crew complaints of nausea, headaches, eye troubles, or skin maladies are often a result of long hours spent with toxic chemicals. Illnesses and injuries resulting from performing various housekeeping tasks ranks quite high with other loss control concerns. To put this risk into perspective, the U.S. Department of Labor ranks hazardous cleaning chemicals among the top hazards of the janitorial industry and estimate that 6 percent of custodians will be injured in 2008 by the commercial cleaning products they use; 20 percent of these injuries will be serious chemical burns to eyes and skin.

Reportedly, the average amount of time lost when a janitor suffers an injury from contact with housekeeping chemicals is 18 hours. Each incident can cost the employer upward of $650. By all estimates, going green can save the janitorial industry millions of dollars annually by reducing medical expenses and lost time wages. As part of our duties, we sanitarians must be aware of this phenomenon and are often called upon to make recommendations for changes in cleaning protocols or suggest modifications to sanitation standard operating procedures aimed at minimizing cleaning-related injuries.

3. The purpose of using cleaning products is to make something cleannot caustic, corrosive, contaminated, and costly. Because of my strong belief in this maxim, I therefore see no conflict between the act of cleaning and preventing harm to people and to the environment. According to some government estimates, more than one-third of the cleaning products used today to clean offices, hospitals, stores, and restaurants contain ingredients that can have a negative impact on public health and the environment. Some of the harmful ingredients include carcinogens; endocrine disrupters which can alter human hormones; chemical sensitizers and allergens; skin, eye, and respiratory irritants; and compounds that are toxic to aquatic and wildlife ecosystems. The average custodian uses conventional cleaning chemicals that contain 50 pounds of hazardous ingredients annually. Using environmentally preferable cleaning products can yield a 40 percent reduction in hazardous materials.

From a regulatory perspective, using green cleaning products can lower operating costs, because there are fewer toxic chemicals to track and fewer chemical-related injuries to report. Parenthetically, eco-friendly cleaning products are also not as aggressive on equipment and interior finishes.

4. There is no such thing as a perfectly harmless cleaning compound. Dr. Alice Ottoboni makes this point in her aptly named plain-language guide to toxicology The Dose Makes the Poison, a must-read for everyone in our business. However, some are decidedly less toxic than others, so why not opt for the safest one?

To assist with this process, consider using the concept of Integrated Cleaning and Measurement (ICM). ICM is basically a way of assessing the use of the right product for the application. It integrates cleaning tools into the ICM system based on the technology’s ability to demonstrate positive measurable outcomes. Since one size does not fit all, assessing the effectiveness of the application to the outcome is an excellent way to determine its cost-effectiveness. And, as we all know, the safer and more effective the product, often the less energy expended in its use, and consequently, the greater value from both an economic and ecological perspective.

In addition to using green products, it is equally important to measure their efficacy by the way they are used. As an example, a green chemical solution applied to hard surfaces in restrooms using a mop versus using a spray/vac technique will show the latter to be more effective in soil removal with a lot less energy consumed. Using an ICM approach to make these comparisons allows us to determine how clean is clean with the advantage of knowing the economy of the entire system used.

Green cleaning does not begin and end with the purchasing of chemicals. The way we use these chemicals, the cleaning techniques employed in their use, and the levels of cleanliness we achieve also have a significant impact on the overall safety of our janitorial staffs and customers as well as a reduction of our carbon footprint.


Dr. Robert W. Powitz  is a forensic sanitarian, a contract instructor with NSF International, a leading global provider of public health and safety risk management solutions, and part-time health director for three towns in Connecticut. He can be reached at; phone, 860-388-0893. Or, for more information, visit

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