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Product: Green Cleaners

Green Products: What Should I Get?

Schools can choose institutional green cleaning products that have been independently certified by either Green Seal or Canada’s EcoLogo Program. Ask your existing vendors whether they carry any of these certified product lines.

 To find these green products, go to:

Criteria: How Do I Know It's Green?

Green Cleaners
There are many cleaning products on the market that manufacturers claim to be “non-toxic,” “biodegradable” or environmentally preferable for some reason. These claims can be misleading, inaccurate or incomplete, making it difficult for schools to determine which products to buy to best protect workers, students and the ecosystem. Schools have several options: they can establish their own health and environmental criteria and specifications to include in bids for janitorial products; they can review the product's Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) and evaluate the chemical ingredients (though not all ingredients are always listed); and/or they can select a product that has been certified by an independent third party as meeting health and environmental standards.

It is generally not practical for school districts to evaluate all of the potential human health and environmental risks associated with various cleaning products on their own. Fortunately, two programs exist that make it easy for schools to find safer janitorial cleaning products by issuing “transparent” independent (third-party) standards that prohibit or limit chemicals that cause cancer and reproductive harm, asthma, corrosive damage to the skin and eyes, toxicity to fish and other aquatic organisms, indoor air pollution and other environmental and health problems, and then certify products that meet these standards. The two most reliable “eco-logos” for green cleaners that schools should look for are:

  • Green Seal, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization, issued GS-37 in 2006, an Environmental Standard for General-Purpose, Bathroom, Glass, and Carpet Cleaners Used for Industrial and Institutional Purposes, and has certified several hundred green cleaners in these categories. A revised GS-37 standard was issued in August 2008; existing certified products will have one year to comply with the new standard.

  • EcoLogo, a certification program created by Environment Canada, which is Canada’s equivalent of the U.S. EPA. In 2005, EcoLogo issued a set of standards (CCD-146) for various “hard surface cleaners,” which include bathroom cleaners, boat and bilge cleaners, cooking appliance cleaners, degreasers, dish cleaners, industrial cleaners, vehicle cleaners for household and institutional use, window and glass cleaners, and cleaning products with low potential for environmental illness.

Both Green Seal and EcoLogo have certified hundreds of green cleaning products under these standards. Schools can require their suppliers of janitorial cleaning products and services to offer products meeting these standards by simply specifying that Green Seal and/or EcoLogo-certified products be provided. See Green Products: What Should I Get? for links to specific lists of products.

See Green Cleaners: Health Criteria & Best Practices for more detailed information on what to look for and what to avoid when evaluating cleaning products.

Safer Disinfectants and Disinfecting Practices
Many schools use a substantial amount of sanitizing and disinfecting products, which are also sometimes used as a general purpose cleaner. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) and California Department of Pesticide Regulation (CA DPR) registers all “antimicrobial” cleaning products as pesticides. Sanitizers are used to reduce, but not necessarily eliminate, microorganisms from the inanimate environment to levels considered safe as determined by public health codes or regulations. In order for a product to be registered as a sanitizer for inanimate, non-food contact surfaces by the US EPA, it must demonstrate the ability to cause a bacterial reduction of at least 99.9% within 5 minutes.1 Non-food-contact sanitizers are typically formulated to be effective against the types of bacteria typically found in restrooms (such as Salmonella, E. coli and  “Staph”), while some also kill a limited number of viruses or other pathogens.

Disinfectants are generally stronger than sanitizers and are, therefore, typically effective against a wider range of bacteria (including, in some cases, antibiotic-resistant strains such as MRSA), viruses (such as flu virus and HIV), and/or fungi (such as Athletes Foot fungus or mildew). Disinfectants are usually used on hard inanimate surfaces and objects to destroy or irreversibly inactivate infectious bacteria, viruses and fungi, but not necessarily their spores.2 Because of the increasing concern about viruses such as H1N1 and the “flu” virus, there is an increasing use of viral disinfectants instead of bacterial sanitizers.

Although all antimicrobial products have risks, there are a few types that appear safer to human health and the environment. These include EPA- and CA DPR-registered disinfectants and sanitizers that contain hydrogen peroxide, citric acid, and thyme oil (thymol) as active ingredients. Like other types of disinfectants and sanitizers, each product should be reviewed for potential health and environmental risks and efficacy (based on dwell time) and other usage instructions.

Since both disinfectants and sanitizers contain chemicals that are designed to kill organisms, it is critical that they be chosen carefully and used properly. Click here to read more about our recommendations about best practices relating to the selection, dilution and use of antimicrobial cleaning products. Below is a directory of disinfectant and sanitizing products that meet our health and safety criteria and are registered for use in California. We developed this directory of products based on a review of disinfectants and sanitizers that do not contain asthmagens, including ortho-phenylphenol, bleach, quaternary ammonium compounds (quats), or pine oil. This list does not include all antimicrobial surface cleaning products that contain hydrogen peroxide, citric acid, or thyme oil. We excluded those that contain other active ingredients or other “inert” chemicals of concern that are listed on the product’s registration label or material safety data sheet (MSDS). The specific brands are representative; there may be other products with the same or similar formulations that schools want to consider using.

Green Cleaning Practices
One of the most important principles of an effective green cleaning program is: first, keep the dirt out. Walk-off mats in doorway entries can prevent mud from being dragged into classrooms. Second, training on proper cleaning and disposal practices can help reduce injury, illness, and pollution. Third, proper dilution of products is an important component of safety, as some chemicals that pose little harm when diluted can be dangerous in their concentrated form.  Reading and following labels should be emphasized in all “green cleaning” training workshops. Also, remember that “clean doesn’t have an odor” – smells of ammonia or fragrances (that may contain phthalates or other toxic compounds) can actually be harmful!

Another practice to consider when selecting green cleaning products is that many are formulated to function as a system. For example, most environmentally preferable floor finishes and strippers are designed to work in tandem since many “green” floor polish removers cannot easily or effectively strip off “non-green” zinc-containing floor polish. Therefore, schools wishing to use Green Seal-certified floor strippers may need to first remove the old floor polish with a conventional stripper before applying a “green” floor polish. They should also pair the new green floor polish with an environmentally preferable floor cleaner, since some conventional floor cleaners contain chemicals typically found in floor strippers (such as Monoethanolamine, which is also an asthmagen).

See Green Cleaners: Health Criteria & Best Practices Details for more information and how best practices can save you money. See Resources section for tips and tools on how to start a program at your school.

Costs: Can I Afford It?

The transition to green cleaning products and practices – if done properly – is generally considered to be “cost neutral” and in many cases can even save schools money. Several pilot tests conducted in schools and other public facilities have documented the ways in which schools can save money by adopting a variety of green cleaning and purchasing practices, such as the following. See Green Cleaning: Health Criteria & Best Practices for more in-depth details.

Switch from ready-to-use cleaning and disinfecting products to concentrates.
In pilot tests conducted in two schools in Honolulu, Hawaii, for example, switching from pre-diluted non-acid bathroom disinfectant (shipped in gallon jugs and 55-gallon drums) to a concentrated restroom disinfectant that is diluted on-site with 64 ounces of water for every one ounce of cleaning product resulted in a 6 to 14-fold cost savings, according to the Green Purchasing Institute. The replacement of ready-to-use cleaning chemicals with concentrated ones not only saves money by dramatically lowering shipping costs, it simultaneously shrinks the carbon footprint of schools by avoiding the transportation of products that contain mostly water.

Use metered dilution equipment rather than mixing cleaning chemicals by hand.
Although many schools are already using concentrated cleaning products, most are packaged in containers that allow custodial staff to pour these chemicals into mop buckets and spray bottles by hand. Consequently, many are likely to be using more cleaning product than necessary, based on the often flawed concept that “if a little bit of cleaning product works well, more will work better.” The use of dilution equipment that automatically measures and dispenses the correct amount of cleaning product can save schools money. This practice also minimizes the potential for custodial staff and building occupants to become exposed to cleaning chemicals that are spilled or over-concentrated when hand-mixing is used. (Note: there are a variety of types of automatic dilution equipment that schools can use ranging from simple hand-held models to more sophisticated wall- or cart-mounted units. Check with your vendor.)

Reduce the number of types and brands of cleaning products used. Some schools try to save money by procuring cleaning products that are the least expensive at the time, often through individual purchase orders or other short-term contracts. Others try out products that are offered as free samples or with temporary discounts by their suppliers. These practices may result in frequent switching of cleaning chemicals, equipment and methods that can end up wasting products and increasing training needs. Products packaged in aerosol containers, should be avoided because they are expensive and can result in increased exposure to cleaning chemicals that are dispersed in a fine mist.

Use microfiber mops and cloths. One way to cut the use of disinfectants and other cleaning products while improving performance is by using microfiber mops and cloths. The fibers are smaller than the human hair and the greater surface area of the fibers and their negative electrical charge make them attract and hold dirt and dust particles more effectively than cotton or sponge mops and regular cleaning and dusting cloths. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, microfiber mops and cloths offer many health, safety and economic benefits. For example, field tests have shown that they can: Cut chemical use by about half, Reduce water use by about 95 percent (as well as any energy needed to heat the mop water), Prevent back strain because fewer full buckets need to be lifted and emptied during a cleaning shift and because microfiber mopes are more ergonomically designed than conventional loop mops so less effort is needed to get the job done, and most importantly, Clean more effectively. Several studies have demonstrated that microfiber mops are more effective at removing dirt and avoid cross contamination that typically occurs with traditional mopping methods. Microfiber cloths can be used wet to clean countertops, desks, mirrors and other surfaces, as well as dry for dusting computer screens, furniture and other surfaces with little or no chemicals.

Negotiate long-term contracts for green cleaning products. Soliciting bids for green cleaning products and/or services that last at least a year can often present school districts with the best overall value because they can avoid the need to change out mixing equipment and retrain workers every time a new product line is procured. As noted above, buying whatever cleaning products have the lowest upfront price at the time often ends up costing more because it can result in a hodge-podge of different products that will sometimes end up being wasted when new products are procured later.

Purchase green cleaners available through State of California contracts.
One way school districts in California can quickly and easily access green cleaning products at a relatively low price is to use the State of California’s janitorial supplies contract. Because this multi-state contract was subject to a formal bidding process through the Western States Contracting Alliance (WSCA), school districts may be allowed to order products offered on it without going out to bid separately. Schools in other states can check with their own state procurement agency.

The primary vendor for this contract is Waxie Sanitary Supply, which offers a full line of green cleaning chemicals and equipment, including Green Seal-certified cleaners, floor polishes and strippers, hand soaps, and toilet tissues, as well as microfiber mops and cloths, high-efficiency (HEPA) vacuums and more. Discounts of approximately 45 to 50% are offered on most janitorial supplies listed. Additional discounts are offered to school districts and facilities that commit to ordering online, in bulk, and with scheduled deliveries (which reduce truck trips). Ordering instructions, a price list, and contact information for the State contract administrator is here and Waxie representatives here. A smaller selection of Green Seal-certified cleaning products are also offered through the State’s Maintenance, Repair and Operations contract with Grainger; for more information, click here.

See the Green Buying Tools section to the right for more information about how to purchase through the State of California contracts.

Beyond Buying: Other Environmentally Friendly Options

While we generally do not recommend that household cleaners be brought to school, you can make your own less-toxic cleaning products with vinegar, baking soda, and other ingredients. Women’s Voices for the Earth has make-your-own green cleaner recipes and many reports about safe cleaning practices. 

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Why Buy Green?

Where Can I Get More Information

  • Our Green Cleaning Toolkit - Green Schools Initiative and the California Department of Public Health are collaborating to help schools in California implement green cleaning.  Our toolkit of fact sheets, letter templates, forms, and case studies will help you get started in making the switch to green cleaning at your school.
  • Cleaning for Healthy Schools - Offers a Toolkit, downloadable presentations, and many resources for implementing a green cleaning program at your school.

>Download Green Cleaning Resources
>Download Green Cleaning School Survey, Product Inventory, and Evaluation Forms
> Link to NY's Cost Calculator for Green Cleaners
> Link to Overview of School Green Cleaning Policies

Green Buying Tools

"Environmentally Preferable Purchasing" or "Green Purchasing" means integrating environmental and health factors into all procurement policies and decisions. Green purchasing can also save money, protect students and staff, and reduce liability—something schools everywhere should care about.

The following tools will help you get started:

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Disclaimer: Listing in this Directory should not be construed as a recommendation or endorsement by Green Schools Initiative or any of its supporters or partners. GSI is providing this information as a public service to promote the use of greener practices and products. Listings in this Directory are based on information obtained from the product manufacturer, supplier, or service provider in question, and may not be complete. GSI reviews the information obtained from these sources to determine if its meets our health and environmental criteria, but does not independently verify the information. GSI provides no warranty or guarantee of product performance, safety, price, or availability.