Green Cleaning to Sustainability

By Steve Ashkin

A sunflower blooms in front of the solar array at Sterling College, in Craftsbury, Vermont. Image source: cc license Flickr/Sterling College

When talking about sustainability, we are actually discussing at least two general concepts, interrelated but separate nonetheless. For instance, very often when I meet with facility managers and cleaning professionals to discuss the evolution of Green cleaning and sustainability, they think I will be going over such things as:

  • Increasing recycling programs
  • Selecting products, such as paper goods, made from recycled materials
  • Using only Green cleaning chemicals because they are made from renewable ingredients
  • Purchasing chemicals in large containers and in bulk, to reduce the amount of packaging as well as fuel for transporting the products
  • Finding ways to recycle cleaning equipment—from locating a new home for the machines to returning them to the manufacturer/distributor so that the equipment can be refurbished or its parts recycled for use in other machines (known as a take-back program).

All of these are part of a sustainable, Green cleaning program. However, these can best be described as some of the day-to-day components of sustainability. There is much more to sustainability and, to better understand this concept, picture a three-legged stool.

The Connection between a Three-legged Stool and Sustainability

Before clarifying how sustainability and a three-legged stool are interrelated—and possibly to build up a little suspense along the way—we first have to define sustainability. One commonly used definition is: Using natural resources in such a way that we meet the needs of today without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

With this definition in mind, let’s now bring in our three-legged stool.

In 1994, John Elkington, a professor at England’s Cranfield School of Management and a leading authority on sustainability, said a commitment to sustainability included the “triple bottom line.” He suggested that for an organization, business, or public or private facility to be sustainable, it must focus not only on profits (or for public facilities, such as park and recreation facilities, cost savings), but people and the planet. This is now known as the three P’s—the three legs of our stool. He also noted that all three legs must be strong with not one more important than another.

When he envisioned the concept, Elkington was quite surprised that no one else had come up with the three P’s concept before him. “I was totally convinced that someone must have used them before,” he said, “but an extensive search suggested otherwise.”

Importantly, he did not trademark the term once he realized he had created it, as is common practice for a consultancy. Elkington believes the triple bottom line concept was too important to society and the planet to try and control or limit its use or application.

Defining the three P’s

Although there are varying definitions or explanations for the three P’s—and the concepts can vary depending on the type of facility or organization discussed—in most cases they refer to the following:

People: This refers to the health and welfare of the people working for a company or using a park and recreation facility, as well as the local community. Some educational facilities have taken this a step further. For instance, at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, school administrators believe the people component also means the school has an obligation to teach students, staff, and the local community about the importance of sustainability and what it involves. “We want everyone to understand these things, their importance, and the positive effect it can have on the [community and] environment,” says George Thomlison, building and grounds manager for the university.

Planet: This is rather straightforward. This leg of the three P’s refers to protecting the health of the planet as well as its natural resources. Again, using the University of Alberta as an example, the school first started recycling paper products more than 30 years ago as a way to minimize waste and reduce consumption of natural resources. Its recycling program now includes beverage containers, plastics, light metal, glass, light bulbs, office batteries, construction materials, and scores of other materials collected in the buildings and on the campus’ grounds—roughly 800 metric tons is now recycled.

Profits (cost savings): A decade ago, most organizations believed going Green and becoming more sustainable would add to costs, negatively impacting profits. However, we are seeing again and again the opposite is true. For instance, the California Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) spent approximately $500,000 to make one of its buildings more sustainable; it is now saving about $600,000 annually as a result of these efforts. In 2001, as another example, Adobe Systems invested $650,000 to make two of its San Jose locations more sustainable. It now estimates that as of 2007, these steps have saved the company more than $725,000.

Cleaning Waste

The cleaning industry has its work cut out for it in becoming more sustainable. For instance, did you know:

More than 6 billion pounds of cleaning chemicals are consumed annually in the performance of cleaning tasks. While chemicals are often necessary to properly clean a facility, misuse and overuse due to lack of training are very common. And, many of these products are still made from scarce, nonrenewable resources.

The 4.5 billion pounds of janitorial paper consumed each year are still primarily composed of virgin tree fiber, equivalent to almost 30 million trees. And even more importantly, the manufacturing and bleaching processes involved have enormous environmental and health impacts, offering significant opportunities for improvement.

Approximately 1 billion pounds—or 40 dump truck loads—of discarded janitorial equipment heads to landfills every year. The overall impact of this waste goes far beyond the impact on landfills. Every part of the product life cycle is impacted—from raw material extraction to manufacturing, packaging, distribution, use, and disposal. Poorly designed or constructed equipment, along with “throw-away vacuum cleaners” and other products designed for limited one-time use, consume tremendous amounts of resources, may cause worker injuries, and generally do not clean well—not a sustainable proposition.

Where to Start?

After you are convinced it is time to start operating your park and recreation facility in a more sustainable manner, the first question that will come up is, where do you start? However, a more important question may be, how much will it cost to become more sustainable? After all, the two cost saving examples above involved making a financial investment, which is something that might be near to impossible in some areas of the United States right now.

Understanding where to start begins with being practical. For example, expanding a recycling program usually does not cost much and, in some localities, organizations exist that will pay cash for recyclable items. Another step is to make the decision that for instance as light bulbs burnout, they are replaced with long lasting but energy saving bulbs.  A little more expensive initially, they typically out last conventional bulbs dramatically.

Additionally, it might be a good idea to benchmark where you are now. Using new online dashboard systems that are also relatively inexpensive, facility managers can track how much water, energy, fuel, and other resources they are consuming. Having this as a benchmark helps managers develop a plan as well as goals for where they want to be six months from now, a year from now, and ten years from now when it comes to being Green and more sustainable.