Many education institutions have embraced the growing push for sustainable design and have built environmentally friendly facilities that use resources more efficiently. But the plaudits that administrators receive for LEED certification and other recognition of their efforts may be meaningless if the green commitment ends when a building is completed.

A critical factor in operating a school facility in an environmentally responsible way is to put a green-cleaning program into place. Maintenance workers and custodial staffs can switch to equipment and supplies that are less harmful to the environment — especially the students, teachers and other employees whose health might be compromised when exposed to potentially dangerous chemicals.

Several states have enacted legislation requiring or encouraging schools to use green cleaning materials and products, and other states are considering similar action. Even if green cleaning is not mandated, schools and universities should look at converting their operations to create a more healthful and productive learning environment.

Certifiable

Just because a product has the word "green" in its name or on its label does not mean it qualifies as an environmentally preferable item.

"Many cleaners make extravagant claims of being environmentally friendly, but often this marketing simply doesn't stand up to scrutiny," the Environmental Working Group says. "No regulations exist to require that manufacturers be honest with consumers."

The group, which advocates for better public health, urges schools to seek out products certified as green by one of two organizations:

  • Green Seal. This non-profit group established an environmental standard for several categories of cleaning supplies and has certified hundreds of products as "green."

  • EcoLogo. This program, created by the Canadian government, also has developed environmental standards for various cleaning supply categories and has certified hundreds of products as environmentally preferable.

Restock the shelves

The Green Schools Initiative, a non-profit environmental advocacy group based in Berkeley, Calif., has put together a best-practices guide for green cleaning that can help schools and universities determine which products and equipment will lead to an environmentally preferable program. Among the recommendations:

  • Avoid "high-hazard" cleaning products, such as aerosol sprays, acid toilet-bowl cleaners, degreasers and solvents, disinfectants, metal polish, graffiti and paint removers, and floor strippers. "Not all products within each category contain hazardous ingredients," the guide says. "Therefore, it is important to review material safety data sheets to identify ingredients in the products that you may want to avoid.

  • Use products packaged as dispensing system concentrates. The containers are designed to automatically dilute the product and prevent exposure to it. Without that type of packaging, workers will be more likely to mix the concentrate and water by hand and use too much of the concentrate. "The use of conventional packaging can result in unsafe levels of exposure to toxic chemicals, even when green cleaners are used," the guide says.

  • Use metered dilution equipment. Rather than assume a custodian will mix concentrate with water in the proper proportions, equipment can automatically dispense the correct amount of concentrate. Eliminating the wasteful overuse of concentrate saves money and can protect the health of workers by preventing unnecessary exposure to chemicals in the concentrate.

  • Acquire equipment that is more efficient. Vacuums with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters are more effective at collecting dirt without letting it escape back into the indoor environment. Newer models of carpet extractors use less water and enable carpet to dry faster.

  • Use microfiber mops and cloths. The guide cites findings from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that use of microfiber mops and cloths can reduce water use by 95 percent (and save the energy that would have been used to heat the water); reduce chemical use by about half; clean more effectively; and avoid the cross-contamination that occurs with traditional mopping.

  • Use fewer products. Education institutions may be tempted to buy whichever cleaning product is the least expensive at any given time. "These practices may result in frequent switching of cleaning chemicals, equipment and methods that can end up wasting products and increasing training needs," the guide says. Negotiating long-term contracts for green cleaning products will enable schools to avoid wasting unused products and having to retrain workers.

  • Use green products that work as a system. The guide notes that many products are formulated to work with each other; a certified green polish remover might not be able to effectively remove a "non-green" floor polish.

Clearing the air

A study that looked at cleaning practices in 13 California school districts found that many of the cleaning supplies being used include chemicals that have been linked to asthma or cancer.

The research by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit organization that advocates for improved public health, also found that cleaning products certified as "green" were able to reduce the amount of chemicals students and staff are exposed to in a school facility.

The report, "Greener Cleaning School Supplies = Fresh Air + Healthier Kids," contends that other chemicals contained in cleaning supplies may be harmful, but too little is known about many of the ingredients in the products.

"The alarming truth is that we know far too little about what's in the cleaning supplies used in schools," the report says.

Certified green cleaning supplies were found to be beneficial because they released a lower number of air contaminants and produced lower levels of volatile organic compounds.

"Cleaning a classroom with certified green products release less than one-sixth of the total air pollution released by cleaning a classroom with conventional cleaners," the EWG says.

Despite the benefits of certified green cleaning products, the group asserts that they are not without drawbacks.

"Although they emitted fewer potentially hazardous chemicals overall, our testing showed that some certified green products release measurable levels of substances that could pose a risk to children's health," the report says. "The certification process is not airtight and needs to be continually upgraded."

Still, EWG urges schools to begin using certified green cleaning supplies and adopt green cleaning practices, including steps to ensure that cleaning takes place when students are not in the building.

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at mkennedy@asumag.com.

  • Check out our Green Cleaning Award page to view the 2009 winners. And look for this year's winners in AS&U's upcoming December issue.