Green Cleaning 101

In just a couple of months it will be spring and with Spring Cleaning right around the corner, this is a good time for us to have a little review period about Green Cleaning—Green Cleaning 101, if you will—with a focus on Green Cleaning in healthcare facilities. This includes a review of the principles and concepts behind the use of environmentally preferable cleaning products and what these applications mean to cleaning professionals, healthcare professionals, and staff and patients in medical locations.

Let’s begin by defining Green Cleaning. The most straightforward definition of this term is “the use of cleaning products and procedures that help protect the health of building users while also having a reduced impact on the user, building occupants, and the environment when compared to similar products used for the same purposes.”

If we look a bit deeper, we see there are actually two concepts involved in this definition, and this is critically important for a healthcare facility manager to understand.  One goal is to reduce cleaning’s impact on the environment, yes, but our primary goal in cleaning is to protect health. Fortunately, after years of research and advances in technology, scores of manufacturers now produce environmentally preferable cleaning products that more than adequately address both of these goals.

What Green Cleaning Encompasses

Many healthcare administrators mistakenly believe that Green Cleaning is all about chemicals. What we must also understand is that the equipment used for cleaning is equally important in reaching our goal. In fact, in some cases, for instance in a facility seeking LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, using the right cleaning equipment can make or break whether the facility earns certification.

For instance, three mainstays of cleaning equipment have made significant advancements in becoming Green: floor machines, vacuums, and extractors.

In general, a Green floor machine has attributes such as these:

• A quiet motor: LEED standards require that floor machines, along with other cleaning equipment, meet specific low-decibel settings.

• Low moisture: A low-moisture automatic scrubber has an advanced squeegee and vacuum system so that chemicals, solution, and contaminants are thoroughly and quickly recovered. It should also have variable-speed pumps for more effective low-moisture cleaning.  This allows floors to dry quickly, helping to promote safety.

• Less chemical and water: Green automatic scrubbers use less chemical and water than conventional machines.

• Indoor air quality protection: The machine should have its own vacuum system to trap and hold dust, dirt, and contaminants as the machine is being used. Typically, the machine will also have a shroud covering its base to minimize the amount of dust and debris escaping from the machine.

• Maintenance-free gel batteries: Conventional batteries can be dangerous to work with. Maintenance-free gel batteries require no maintenance and are overall much more environmentally responsible.

• Cylindrical brush technology: Some manufacturers now produce floor machines that use brushes instead of pads. The potential benefit of the brush system is that it can dig deeper into porous floors and grout than a rotary machine which may mean less water and chemical is necessary, reducing the machine’s impact on the environment.

A Green vacuum cleaner has an advanced high-filtration system that traps and holds dust and debris so that it is not released with the machine’s exhaust. Taking this a step further, the machine should also be designed so that little or no air escapes through the machine’s casing. The machine should be as airtight as possible.

As to carpet extractors, cleaning industry manufacturers have made giant strides in the past decade, producing   highly effective, low-moisture equipment. At one time, extractors used as much as one to two gallons of water per minute. Unless the machine had an extremely powerful vacuum motor, with this much moisture saturation the carpets could take several hours, even days, for the carpets to dry.

Low-moisture extractors, on the other hand, typically use less than one gallon of water per minute and, very importantly, ensure that carpets dry in less than 24 hours.* This helps ensure mold and mildew do not develop in the carpets and that less water and chemical are used in the cleaning process.

What Type of Cleaning Products Can Be Used Where?

It might come as a surprise to some readers that a longtime advocate of Green cleaning such as myself would admit there are areas of a healthcare facility where environmentally preferable cleaning products should not be used. However, that is the case, as I shall explain.

It is estimated that on any given day, hospitals in the United States have close to 700,000 patients in their facilities. There are more than 4.5 million people working in these healthcare locations and likely another 100,000 medical professionals in training. Some of these people are located in surgery areas, others in public clinics, and still others in the administration areas of the facility. To serve the needs of such a facility appropriately, we must divide the hospital into three key categories:

• Critical and high risk: Such areas as emergency rooms and surgery areas fall into this category. These areas must use specific disinfectants as required by law. Disinfectants in the United States cannot be marketed or labeled as Green. For this reason, only conventional disinfectants that meet government regulations can be used in these areas.

• Semicritical areas: Public clinics, rehabilitation areas, nurseries, restrooms, and so forth fall into this category and as long as a disinfectant is not called for. As an example, a Green glass cleaner does not include ammonia or other ingredients that can be harmful to the user and the environment.

• Noncritical areas: The administrative sections of a medical facility should be treated just like a conventional office for any type of business or organization. Here environmentally preferable cleaning products can be used at all times.

We really can’t end a discussion of Green Cleaning 101 without commenting on sustainability, the next evolution in Green Cleaning. The cleaning industry, as with other industries, is getting more and more concerned about its use and impact on natural resources. Green Cleaning products do not use petroleum or many of the other ingredients found in conventional products that are nonsustainable. Although there are many facets to this new trend, suffice it to say that Green Cleaning and the use of Green Cleaning products are not only protecting the health of our planet but its resources as well.

Stephen P. Ashkin is president of The Ashkin Group, a consulting firm specializing in greening the cleaning industry and CEO of Sustainability Tool LLC, an electronic dashboard that allows jansan companies to measure and report on their sustainability efforts.

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Green Carpet Care

Building managers, working with their custodial crews, are transferring to environmentally preferable cleaning systems and products in record numbers. What started as a trickle just a few years ago is now beyond a trend. For many building managers and in many industries, having their facilities Green-cleaned is a given.

However, the situation gets a bit more complicated when it comes to things such as carpet cleaning. Maintaining carpets can require frequent cleaning, sometimes using very powerful cleaning chemicals, making “Green” a challenge. The following are some key steps building owners and managers can take to reduce carpet cleaning’s impact on the environment:

Prioritize carpet cleaning. Many facilities schedule carpet cleaning throughout the year, with certain areas cleaned on a set schedule. This may work in some parts of a building as long as those carpeted areas do need to be cleaned. But what so often happens is the executive areas of facilities, where carpets tend to stay relatively unsoiled, get more than their share of attention. Carpet cleaning should be prioritized: clean those areas that get more soiled more frequently and the less soiled areas less frequently.

Vacuum frequently. It is estimated that 80 percent of the soils in carpets are dry soils such as dust and grit. An effective vacuum cleaner, employing a HEPA or similar filtration system, can remove these soils from carpets, preventing them from further soiling the floor covering. In addition, a high filtration system protects indoor air quality.

Employ interim carpet cleaning methods. Although the extraction method is the most thorough carpet cleaning procedure, it uses a lot of water. Older extractors may use as much as two gallons of water per minute as well as large amounts of chemical. Often a shampoo, bonnet, or dry carpet cleaning method can be used on an interim basis. These processes use far less water, energy, and chemical, reducing cleaning’s impact on the environment.

Low-flow technologies. Even when incorporating an interim carpet cleaning system, transferring to low-flow or low-moisture extractors can reduce water use dramatically. Some systems use less than one gallon of water per minute and the carpets dry in two to four hours. This expedited cleaning time helps prevent mold or mildew from developing.

Use cold water when cleaning carpets. Acknowledging this is a somewhat controversial suggestion, we believe that depending on the degree of soiling, most soils will be removed from carpets using cold water. Why is this important? The heating of water, especially when using portable extractors, can draw large amounts of power. Using cold water eliminates this. Additionally, depending on how the chemicals are used with the system, hot water can cause the development of fumes that can be harmful to the user and indoor air quality.

Use Green-certified cleaning chemicals. Excuse the expression, but today, this is a “no-brainer.” Several manufacturers now have Green-certified carpet cleaning products or products that meet or exceed certification standards. Most users find these products to compare favorably with, if not exceed, the performance standards of conventional carpet cleaning chemicals.

Maintain the equipment…and know when it is time to select new machines. One 23-story building in Chicago has employed the same portable carpet extractor for more than 15 years. The machine breaks down regularly, is an excessive water and power user, and due to its lack of cleaning power, requires large amounts of chemical solution to perform adequately. Fortunately the building’s managers have decided to replace the machine. Newer machines require far less water and energy and use less chemical more efficiently than machines produced just a few years ago. Consider new equipment if current machines are more than seven years old and be sure to maintain them properly to keep them operating most effectively.

Touching on Sustainability

As you may have noticed, many of these tips now include sustainability issues. Green and sustainability are becoming intertwined. Whenever any type of cleaning can be performed using less water, less chemical, or less energy, not only is it Greener and healthier, but it is using natural resources more responsibly. This is why the next step in Green carpet cleaning, or for that matter all cleaning, is sustainable cleaning.


Stephen P. Ashkin is president of The Ashkin Group, a consulting firm specializing in greening the cleaning industry, as well as Sustainability Dashboard Tool LLC, an electronic dashboard that allows jansan companies to measure, track and report on their facility’s environmental impacts, He is also coauthor of both The Business of Green Cleaning and Green Cleaning for Dummies

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Trash Can Liner Consequences

The following was published in Cleaning Maintenance Magazine in February 2017

Ever since the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) introduction of LEED v4 in 2016, I have been disappointed that v4 did not address some of my concerns about plastic liners. In my view, plastic liners used in facilities should be made of recycled content; be recyclable; and come in a variety of sizes so custodial staff use only right-sized bags, helping to reduce waste.

However, while weighing the issue, the USGBC heard from manufacturers and end-user customers who said recycled plastic liners were not as dependable as traditional liners and were more likely to tear. In other words, the technology to manufacture durable and recyclable liners made from recycled resin was just not there yet.

Nearly 300 million tons of plastics were produced in 2013, according to the Worldwatch Institute; a great deal of this plastic was used for products such as trash can liners. And while trash can liners help to keep our facilities clean, how we dispose of them can have grave consequences.

A Look at the Consequences

According to an article, “Plastic Bag Pollution,” by Sharon Jacobsen with the LA County Department of Public Works, plastic bags that end up in landfills or in waterways can have detrimental impacts on the environment. For example:

  • Plastic liners can take as long as 300 years to fully disintegrate.
  • As they break down, plastic liners release toxic particulates that contaminate soil and waterways and enter the food chain.
  • In oceans, they can endanger, smother, or choke sea life.
  • Environmentally-friendly plastic bags are still petroleum-based and can take three years to break down, releasing methane, a greenhouse gas, as they decay.

Reducing Impact

The cleaning industry needs to educate building users on ways to help reduce the unnecessary use of plastic liners and replace those that are necessary with new plastic liner technologies that are more environmentally preferable.

Some major sustainability-focused, corporate campuses have implemented sustainable can liner programs, installing different types of containers for different types of waste. In these programs, plastic liners are only used in containers meant for wet or potentially-contaminated waste. All other waste is put into containers that have no plastic liners.

In most settings, specifically in office locations, the overwhelming amount of waste generated is dry trash, such as paper. Sustainable can liner programs cater to this type of trash. Custodians can simply dump these dry containers without taking time away from important cleaning and disinfecting tasks to wash the waste containers.

In addition to eliminating unnecessary plastic liners, sustainable can liner programs ensure the bags are the right size for the containers and the appropriate thickness for the collected materials. This helps to eliminate excessive plastic, minimizing environmental impacts and reducing overall cost.

Promoting Sustainable Trash Practices

The results of sustainable can liner programs have been so encouraging that many corporate campuses are now taking steps to expand the program.

While there may be different perspectives as to why these programs are proving successful, I believe their success is due to people, especially younger people, who want to promote sustainability. Just as younger people seem to have been born computer literate, it appears many have also been raised in a culture that values sustainability. In addition, using resources more efficiently, reducing impacts on the environment, and saving money are values that many people share.

Stephen Ashkin is chief executive officer of The Sustainability Dashboard Tools LLC. The Sustainability Dashboard is a reporting system that measures and monitors energy, water, and fuel consumption to help reduce environmental impact and cost. For more information, email

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