Going Green While Cleaning Up
Who wants their home or office to be dirtier after it's been cleaned than before? No one. But with conventional cleaning products, trash disposal, and bathroom supplies, that can be the result. Using too many disposable products can harm the environment and using harsh or toxic chemicals can harm both the environment and workers' health. That's part of the reason the USDA has committed to "green" cleaning in its Washington, D.C. office space.
What is included in green cleaning?
The USDA green cleaning program is broad in scope. It includes the actual cleaning fluids used by the janitorial staff (OBSI), such as all-purpose cleaner, general disinfectant, floor stripper, and bathroom cleaner. It also addresses the tools used in the cleaning process, such as vacuum cleaners. Bathroom supplies including toilet paper and paper towels fall into this category, as does the building recycling program and the snow removal / de-icing procedures. All of these categories are specifically addressed in the contract made with the cleaning service in charge of the downtown USDA buildings.
Many of the custodial products used are environmentally friendly Biobased products, including the ice melt used on the exterior sidewalks and stairs.
What is a green cleaning product and how does it help?
Green cleaning products minimize their negative impact on environmental and individual health. For paper and plastic products, the green criteria is usually a minimum percentage of recovered or post-consumer materials. For example, the cleaning contract requires a minimum of 30% post-consumer recycled content for plastic trash bags and disposable paper products. This requirement provides a market for recycled materials and reduces the amount of new resources that go into the manufacturing of these products. Vacuum cleaners have to have HEPA air filters to trap at least 99.97 % of all airborne particles collected by the vacuums - an important step in improving indoor air quality. Air quality is also improved by requiring cleaning fluids and chemicals that do not omit toxic or other harmful gases. These green cleaning fluids are also usually biobased and breakdown safely in the environment. The contract requires green cleaning fluids to meet standards put out by the state of California or the Green Seal organization. The contract even specifies that chemicals used on snow and ice have to be environmentally friendly.
Valerie from OBSI shown above using one of their standard issue HEPA vacuum cleaners. The air filters in the HEPA vacuum cleaners are designed to capture 99.75% if all airborne particles 0.3 micrometers (µm) in diameter.
Who benefits from green cleaning?
We all benefit from green cleaning. Carefully choosing chemicals reduces pollution to the environment, and recycling and reusing materials minimizes the amount going to landfills. Improving indoor air quality and reducing the amount of toxic chemicals in our indoor environment help provide a healthier and safer working environment for all staff. Our cleaning staff especially benefits since they spend their entire shift doing the cleaning and using the cleaning products.
The green clean products used at the USDA Headquarters were specifically selected for the ability to clean while minimizing any impacts on our environment.
What can I do to help?
There is a lot that office staff can do to help the green cleaning effort at the USDA buildings. First and foremost, recycle everything! The building has programs for recycling all forms of mixed paper, cardboard, glass, plastic, steel, and aluminum. Take advantage of those programs, and you will have made a huge difference.
If you are in charge of purchasing products for the office (anything from printer paper to office furniture), think about the recycled content of the products and whether they will release chemicals into the air. ("Offgassing" or "outgassing" are the common names for this problem with office furniture, carpets, paint, etc.)
And, of course, you can always make a difference by following the standard green advice: "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" and "Unplug."