Facilities (Campus Spaces)

Routine Cleaning vs. Sustainability



With all the hats that college and university administrators must wear, it is likely that they have not been able to pay much attention to the evolution occurring in the professional cleaning industry. What is happening is that the impact of cleaning on people and the environment has been markedly reduced in the past few years.

The industry is also promoting sustainability in several ways, which is helping colleges and universities reduce their environmental footprint. (Here, the use of the words “sustainable” and “sustainability” references a reduction in the use of natural resources from the ingredients used to make the product to the way it is packaged, delivered and disposed of.) This is all part of a journey which started in the professional cleaning industry a good 20 years ago, with the introduction of green cleaning products and strategies.

Possibly a good place to start our discussion of how these green products are also promoting sustainability is with what was formerly called “chemical-free” cleaning. Today, chemical-free cleaning is known by different names such as cleaning with “engineered water,” “on-site/on-demand engineered water,” “enhanced” or “activated water” cleaning. Whatever the name, it essentially means the same thing: no chemicals, traditional or otherwise, are used in the cleaning process.

Understanding Engineered Water Cleaning

In 2013, administrators at Boston’s Logan International Airport notified their cleaning service provider that they wanted them to use the most environmentally preferable and sustainable cleaning products possible. They were looking for something new; a step beyond green cleaning products.

Because floor care was such a major part of the upkeep of the airport, one of the solutions the contractor suggested was the use of floor machines that work effectively without the use of cleaning chemicals. At that time, this was a relatively new technology in the cleaning industry, only available from a couple of equipment manufacturers.

Essentially, it works like this: an electrical charge is sent through the tap water in the machine. The process creates a solution that can satisfactorily clean floor surfaces. The process also increases the alkalinity of the water. This makes it more efficient at dissolving fats, oils, grease and other soils on the floor so that they can be more easily removed in the cleaning process.

Another no-chemical technology that may even be older than the one just discussed, but is just now making a significant impact on the professional cleaning industry, is the use of aqueous ozone cleaning systems. Aqueous ozone has been used since the early 1900s to treat water for human consumption. Over time, it has been used to help clean fruits and vegetables and is used in several industries, such as the brewing industry, to clean and sanitize kettles, vessels and containers used in the brewing process.

Aqueous ozone technology adds an extra atom to water. As it is applied to a surface, the additional atom attracts contaminants on the surface and eliminates them, leaving just oxygen and water, which dissipates or evaporates after cleaning. Aqueous ozone has proven to be a very effective cleaning system, even having antimicrobial properties. It helps break down grease and is an excellent odor eliminator.

These technologies are now being used successfully by more cleaning contractors. How they also promote sustainability is that they eliminate the need to purchase cleaning solutions, which means no packaging materials, no fuel for product deliveries, fewer greenhouse gasses and no waste.

Sustainable Purchasing

A school district in Colorado had lost control of its cleaning product selection and spending. A cleaning consultant was brought in to help bring things under control. When the consultant started, what he found was the following:

  • Many individual schools were ordering their own supplies.
  • Once ordered, many of these supplies ended up on the shelf, rarely or never used.
  • Different products were selected that were designed for the same or similar cleaning tasks.

This last item lead the consultant to ask school administrators, “How many types of window cleaner do you need?”

His first step in getting purchasing under control was to remove the purchasing power of the individual schools. Everything had to be ordered by a central office. That helped control and rein in spending. But how about all the different products ordered?

A product audit was conducted. The essence of a product audit is to rank products by their effectiveness and costs. If two products currently in use in the schools are equally effective according to custodial workers and supervisors, but one is 15 percent less costly than the other, it’s clear the less expensive brand should be selected.

No product audit had ever previously been performed. The process not only helped reduce costs, but it also helped reduce the number of cleaning solutions used in the schools by one-half. This made ordering far easier, opened up storage space and reduced custodial training needs.

It also helped the district become more sustainable in the process. Now, with fewer products selected, the district was able to purchase products in five-gallon containers. Green products tend to be highly concentrated, so the product lasts longer. Once again, this helps promote sustainability because less packaging material and boxes were needed, less fuel is consumed, fewer greenhouse gasses are released into the atmosphere and less waste is generated.

Sustainable Cleaning

We’ve discussed new cleaning technologies that require no cleaning chemicals and sustainable purchasing, which helps reduce the number of cleaning products selected for cleaning. There are some other steps we can take to promote sustainability by using cleaning tools and equipment readily available but sometimes overlooked. For instance:

Microfiber mops. Housekeeping departments and cleaning contractors often select microfiber mops because studies indicate they can be more effective at removing soils. However, microfiber also promotes sustainability because it uses less water and chemical than traditional string mops.

Auto-dilution systems. An auto-dilution system is designed to dilute cleaning chemicals with water more precisely, based on the cleaning needs at hand. When mixed manually, either the custodian uses too much chemical or not enough, neither of which promotes effective cleaning; plus, it can also be wasteful and costly.

Paper products. Sustainable cleaning also involves selecting paper products that are made from recycled/recyclable materials. However, to help promote sustainability, consider choosing paper hand towels or toilet tissue on large rolls. Using large rolls and dispensers that hold multiple rolls can reduce overall paper consumption by 30 percent. Coreless options also reduce waste and increase the linear feet of product to ensure that paper towels and toilet tissue don’t run out.

Stretch floor refinishing cycles. At one time, many schools and universities had their floors stripped and refinished two to four times per year. Today that is simply no longer economically feasible, can have negative impacts on the environment and certainly does not promote sustainability. Select high-performance floor finishes and have cleaning workers implement a system that stretches floor refinishing cycles. This includes more frequent cleaning as well as auto-scrubbing. Correctly performed, floor refinishing cycles can be extended to 18 and even 24 months.

Look to Cleaning

When college and university administrators look for ways to become more sustainable, they often look for ways to reduce energy and water consumption, fuel consumption, etc. The action of cleaning itself and cleaning technologies are often overlooked. This is a significant oversight.

Your cleaning workers are closer to your buildings and building operations than anyone else on campus. Astute administrators should turn to them, not only to learn more about new, more sustainable cleaning technologies, but also to make the entire campus greener and more environmentally responsible.

This article originally appeared in the issue of .