Cleaning and janitorial staff are the unsung heroes of every building. When the regular occupants are gone, they move in to clean away all the grime and rubbish that collects as a part of life, leaving the place fresh and sparkling.
We assume that they do a pretty thorough job, but we don’t know a great deal about what’s actually in the cleaning products that they use. Even the product procurers themselves are likely unaware of the chemistry being used to clean their buildings.
For many facilities management professionals, the choice of cleaning products probably comes down to a delicate balancing act between cost, versatility, thoroughness and a host of other factors. Perhaps there is a desire to be ‘eco-friendly’ for any number of reasons, ranging from Green Star points or marketing to a genuine concern for sustainability. However, what they may not realise is that many standard cleaning products contain ingredients that are harmful not only to the environment, but to human health as well.
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs), for example, can have harmful effects for asthmatics and those with allergies, and can cause headaches. While it is still legal to use products that emit VOCs, many facilities management professionals are becoming increasingly aware of the problems caused by these emissions. They can contribute to poor indoor air quality in a building, which in turn can hamper workplace productivity. While anything from the paint on the walls to the choice of flooring and upholstery materials can cause the building’s air quality to suffer, cleaning products are one of the simplest things to change.
It’s not just VOCs that cause problems where cleaning products are concerned. There’s also a vast amount of chemicals that bear Risk Phrases to declare that a substance may be a carcinogen or harmful to a developing foetus, for example. It’s rare for these hazards to be obvious to those who actually use the product, even if they read the ingredients list.
If it foams and makes suds, there’s a strong chance it contains palm oil, the production of which can wreak havoc on the environment by devastating orangutan populations and displacing local communities due to unsustainable harvesting practices. Palm oil and palm kernel oil are found throughout a range of supermarket products, and some may be aware of how commonly palm oil is used in chocolate and biscuits. It’s also a popular ingredient in cleaning products thanks to many desirable properties, including having a stable shelf life and adding a rich creaminess to cleaning solutions.
Even after making the decision to switch to better cleaning products, procurers should be careful when it comes to evaluating the ‘green’ credentials of what they’re about to buy. It’s important to check that the manufacturer’s claims aren’t just greenwash. Companies sometimes try to give the impression that their products are better for the environment than they really are, such as by highlighting insignificant or irrelevant facts. This is where third-party certification schemes can help, such as the Good Environmental Choice Australia (GECA) ecolabel. Understanding what issues are really important and deciphering what is on the packet can be difficult, but seeing that a product has been assessed by a neutral third party gives assurance to purchasers that the product’s claims are real and that the product really is a better choice.
There’s growing recognition of the need to have healthier, more environmentally preferable spaces to live, work and rest in. The Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA) now recognises cleaning products under its Green Star Performance tool. The use of products that have been certified and meet particular criteria counts directly towards achieving possible ‘Green Star’ credits as a measure of the operational performance of a building.
Making the switch to environmentally preferable cleaning products has an enormous range of benefits for the health of building occupants, cleaning staff and the environment. It can reduce cases of ‘sick building syndrome’ issues and boost productivity levels for occupants. Perhaps it’s time to reconsider what you’re using to keep your building clean.
Author: Rupert Posner, CEO of Good Environmental Choice Australia.