Taking a holistic approach to green cleaning processes

April 19, 2009
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The concept of "green cleaning" comes with some misconceptions. One of those — that "green" products are twice as expensive as regular cleaners — actually used to be somewhat true.

"That's definitely the way things started out," said Sheri Slahive, vice president of Grand Haven-based Corporate Cleaning. "I think that's why the movement itself was so slow to start.

"It's at the point now where it definitely doesn't cost us anymore. In fact, it's actually saving us money as far as the product line, because we're buying in bulk concentrates, then diluting it ourselves. We're no longer paying for people to ship water to us."

Corporate Cleaning also has seen savings by reducing waste. For instance, buying bulk concentrates means it no longer receives products packaged in individual plastic bottles that are thrown away when they're empty. Rags have been another big money saver. The company now uses microfiber rags.

"We used to use all disposable rags, so we were going through cases a month that were costing us $60, $70 a case," she said. "Now, despite the initial cost, we launder them, so we're not spending any money on rags."

Switching products is only one step in going green. Being truly sustainable means much more.

"The green cleaning concept itself is taking cleaning from a separate entity, as far as the client's perspective, and bringing it into a holistic perspective," said Slahive. "We're an extension of the client's staff, rather than someone over there on the sidelines doing this little thing."

Renae Hesselink, vice president of sustainability at Nichols, a paper and janitorial product distributor, said that when her company made the transition to green, it too looked beyond just the products it distributes.

"We started thinking, 'OK, how do we pull everything together to have a program, not just chemicals,'" said Hesselink. "There's much more to it than that."

Nichols hired an outside source to help the company implement green practices and define.

"A lot of it is things we should have been doing anyway," said Hesselink. "We looked at procedures. The chemical lines have changed so much. Now we can take one chemical and use it in several applications."

Slahive mentioned the importance of educating its cleaning staff and clients about ways to embrace sustainability. Hesselink said that Nichols studied how cleaning was being done and documented it "so people have a training tool."

"There are many simple changes that can be made in the way cleaning takes place. One example was sending larger groups to clean one building at the same time. This can help reduce the amount of time lights are on and therefore energy costs."

LEED-certified buildings demand special procedures.

"If a customer's building is going to be LEED-certified, especially if they're looking at LEED for existing buildings, they have to document all of that and submit it with their LEED application," Hesselink said.

"About 40 percent of credits for LEED for existing buildings can be obtained from a good green cleaning program."

At the crux of it, Slahive said, is communication with the clients.

"There is a lot of client involvement as far as surveys that are done, assessments that are done. There's a lot of little tweaks that the cleaning person needs to be aware of. There's definitely a difference between what you're doing and how many points you can get. The education is a huge part of it, so we offer a lot of educational stuff with our staff and our clients."

Corporate Cleaning, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary, decided a year ago to move to all green products. The change took place on Earth Day and hasn't affected the cost of its services.

Hesselink said the green cleaning movement has really taken hold in the health care industry and is picking up momentum in higher education establishments. She said K-12 education is where Nichols is noticing the most recent amount of activity.

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