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Greener School Cleaning Supplies

Research Links Air Quality to Cleaning Supplies

November 3, 2009

Greener School Cleaning Supplies: Successful Green Cleaning

Green Cleaning Does the Job

All across California, and indeed, all across the nation, schools have begun to turn to certified green cleaning supplies to provide students with a safer learning environment. Some of the many California school districts implementing large-scale green cleaning programs include Elk Grove Unified, Fairfield-Suisun Unified, and Fresno Unified. Other schools conducting green cleaning pilot programs include Los Angeles Unified, Oakland Unified, and San Francisco Unified. These success stories show that green cleaning is effective, protects the health of students and staff, and can save schools money.

Green Cleaners Really Clean

To be certified, a green cleaning product must pass strict performance tests. Elk Grove Unified, just south of Sacramento, transitioned from 15 different conventional cleaners to a single certified green cleaner that, at varying strengths, can clean just about every surface in a school (RAMP 2009). Linda Lopez, Manager of Custodial Services for Elk Grove, supervised the switch. After a demonstration from the product rep, she ordered a pilot test at Franklin High School. She reports, "I've also seen a lot of 'green' cleaners that don't perform. But this one [certified green cleaner] really works, and it's safe."

According to Richard Bonfond, chief custodian at Elk Grove's Joseph Sims Elementary School, "Some of the old products, you couldn’t stand them they were so harsh, plus they didn't work as well. I prefer this new product. I like how it works for us. Just because you clean something doesn't mean it's clean. With this stuff, it's clean."

Green Products Are Healthier for Kids

School staff quickly see the health benefits provided by green cleaning supplies. For example, the same year that the new certified green cleaner was introduced to Elk Grove, absenteeism dropped 2% (RAMP 2009). "That's probably coincidental with attendance efforts on other fronts," said Linda Lopez, "but it [absenteeism] has been down significantly since then and it's stayed down."

Francis Kennedy, Custodial Manager of Fairfield-Suisun Unified, led the district's transition to green cleaning products (RAMP 2009). An asthmatic himself, Kennedy remembers that the traditional cleaners used in the district "had very powerful odors and children were affected by it." Following the transition to green cleaners, "The number of complaints we used to get about smells and odors, we don’t get any more." With green cleaning in place, "The rooms became cleaner and the teachers noticed it. They didn’t smell residual products after cleaning, which used to be a really big issue. When a room had an odor we used to spray a deodorizer that lingered for two to three days. We don't use products like that anymore."

Green cleaning is also safer for custodians. According to Kennedy, the job injury rate at Fairfield-Suisun's school sites also dropped significantly with the transition to certified green products. "We're not having the chemical accidents we used to have," he noted. "Job injuries mostly evaporated that first year."

Green Cleaning Can Save Money

Green cleaning need not cost schools any more money than conventional cleaning. On the contrary, many schools have saved money by making the switch. Fairfield-Suisun officials estimate that the new cleaning products and procedures have produced savings as high as 20%, in part due to labor savings from using restroom cleaning machines and autoscrubbers that dispense new green cleaning products (RAMP 2009).

Novato Unified School District in California’s Marin County successfully transitioned to green cleaning products at all sites with no additional expense by working through its long-term contract with a local vendor (GPI 2009). "The market trend is that the costs for green products are going down, and having a long-term contract has helped us to lock-in prices and better manage our budget projections," said Mark Silva, Director of Maintenance, Operations and Transportation for Novato Unified.

A money-saving advantage incorporated into the packaging of certified green cleaning supplies is that of automatic dilution equipment. Most certified green cleaning supplies are highly concentrated and a large percentage come with specially-engineered dilution control packaging or equipment to guarantee all products are used at appropriate concentrations. This creates a money-saving advantage over many conventional cleaning products by preventing waste caused by unmeasured pouring (the “glug-glug” method). Recently, two schools in Honolulu, HI were able to reduce the cost of their restroom cleaning products from $6-12 per gallon to less than $1 per gallon by replacing a ready-to-use conventional product with a highly-concentrated, Green Seal-certified product that is typically diluted with 64 to 256 parts water (GPI 2009).

Fairfield-Suisun Custodial Supervisor Francis Kennedy also reminds us that there are often additional, unquantified "savings in better indoor air quality, fewer job injuries due to toxic chemicals, and less damage to the facilities because of spills or misuse of the toxic product" (GPI 2009). Mary Curtin, a registered nurse at Martinez Unified School District, now using green bathroom cleaners, noted that, "The green products will most likely save district money with diminished school absences and improved employees' health" (GPI 2009).

New York and Illinois, the first states to mandate green cleaning in schools, have seen no adverse cost impacts from the legislation (GPI 2009). Kurt Larson of the New York State Office of General Services Environmental Services Unit, which spearheaded implementation of New York's 2005 Green Cleaning in Schools Law, has not heard any complaints from schools about the cost of green cleaners. "Since there are about 750 school districts in the state, if the requirement to use certified green cleaners was onerous, we would likely be hearing about it," Larson said. "Anecdotally, we’re hearing that the green cleaning products work effectively and last longer, because they are concentrated and the dispensing systems are more accurate. In addition, the new products are usually implemented in conjunction with a comprehensive green cleaning program, often reducing the number of cleaning products required, which saves money."

The Illinois Green Clean Schools Act of 2007 was written to include an exemption clause that allows schools to opt out of the law's green cleaning requirements if they determine that they would increase their cleaning costs (GPI 2009). Mark Bishop of the Chicago-based Healthy Schools Campaign noted, "In follow up discussions with more than 25 districts, not a single facility manager told us that their costs increased. Most of the facility managers we spoke to said that while some elements of the green cleaning program cost more, some elements cost less; overall, green cleaning resulted in no additional cost. Additionally, as of April 2, 2009, the State of Illinois has received only four notices of schools determining that green cleaning is not economically feasible [out of nearly 900 districts in the state]."

For more green cleaning success stories, check out Breathing Easier: School Districts Make the Switch to Certified Green Cleaning Products, a new report from Regional Asthma Management and Prevention (RAMP).