Trends In Green

An Important Lesson

Over the past decade, U.S. public schools have played a major role in raising awareness of the environment by incorporating lessons on sustainability into their curriculum. The result has been an emerging generation with much greater respect for the world they live in, a broader understanding and appreciation for natural sciences, and more motivation to take the steps needed to live a “greener” life.

But there is one area where public schools can still go further on sustainability and in the process teach an important lesson. Being “green” is not only about protecting the broader world, but your immediate environment as well — in particular, how schools themselves are cleaned and maintained.

People often see green activities as focused on protecting the environment, but they also include protecting human health and safety. Nowhere is that need greater than in the products used and procedures implemented when cleaning schools.

Cleaning products, especially those used in industrial or institutional settings, can contain hazardous or toxic chemicals and pose a threat to the health of students, faculty and staff. Not only do options exist for reducing the presence of these dangerous chemicals in the school environment, but safer cleaning practices can also be employed.

Green Seal, which is an independent non-profit providing certification for sustainable products and services, developed a standard (GS-42) specifically for cleaning services used in industrial and institutional facilities such as school buildings. The standard provides guidance on how to make cleaning more sustainable.

The GS-42 standard takes a systems approach to cleaning. Guidance is provided for equipment and products (what is used for cleaning) and includes staff training and planning (how cleaning is done). The standard also emphasizes environmental improvements that reduce toxicity, waste and exposure to both building occupants and custodial staff.

The requirements in the standard provide a comprehensive guide to what a green cleaning program should incorporate the following.


  • Programs should have a written set of standard operating procedures for custodial staff to follow and have building-specific green cleaning plans in place. There should also be a plan for use and regular maintenance of all power equipment.

Products, supplies and equipment

  • Only environmentally preferable products certified by an eco-label should be used and new power cleaning equipment should meet criteria for performance, noise and emissions. Only EPA registered disinfectants should be used

Cleaning procedures

  • The use of cleaning chemicals should be as efficient as possible to limit waste and exposure. Solid waste should be reduced by minimizing packaging and disposables, re-using supplies and recycling. Consideration should be given to entryways to minimize introduction of dirt into a building, and floors and carpets should be regularly maintained. Special care should be given to restrooms, dining areas and break rooms.

The requirements in GS-42 also call for implementation of a communications program to ensure coordination, and regular training for staff to ensure that sustainable procedures are continually being adhered to.

The Green Seal standard is not only a guide for individual schools and the cleaning services that they use, but for full school districts as well.

Recognizing the need to better protect students, faculty and workers, Maryland’s Howard County was the first public school system in the nation to achieve Green Seal certification for its custodial cleaning service.

The “Green Cleaning Program,” developed by the Howard County Public School System, qualified for certification under Green Seal’s GS-42 standard in April 2012. Using the standard, the Green Cleaning Program looked to not only use products and equipment that had less impact on the environment, but also to adopt processes and procedures specifically designed to protect human health.

Currently, to maintain Green Seal certification, the custodians in the program receive training each year, and each building within the program is required to maintain a specific plan for cleaning.

The Howard County Public School System worked with the Building Wellness Institute (BWI) to develop their program and ensure that it could meet Green Seal specifications for GS-42. BWI is an organization that helps facilities protect the health and comfort of their occupants.

Just like charity, “green” begins at home, or in this instance, at school. Students can learn a critical lesson about the importance of sustainability just by observing how their classrooms are cleaned and maintained.

It’s a lesson not only in protection of the environment, but in protecting our health and safety as well.

This article originally appeared in the issue of .

About the Author

Linda Chipperfield is vice president of marketing and communications for Green Seal, which identifies products and services that are environmentally responsible and provides public education for creating a more sustainable world. For more information about Green Seal, visit or call 202/872-6400.

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