Are We Moving from Green Cleaning Chemicals to None At All?

As a leading advocate for safer and healthier cleaning chemicals for more than 25 years, the next direction I am advocating in certain cleaning situations might come as a bit of a surprise: from the use of healthier cleaning chemicals to using no cleaning chemicals at all.

The professional cleaning industry has changed dramatically in the past two decades when it comes to Green cleaning.  From early reluctance to the concept, we could say that today the use of environmentally preferable cleaning tools, chemicals, and products is “modus operandifor the industry and is the preferred cleaning approach of facility managers throughout North America and many other parts of the world.

One of the things we have learned as this transformation has ensued is that there are times when effective cleaning—effective in the sense that surfaces not only look clean but meet acceptable standards as far as being free of contaminants and pathogens that can cause disease—can be achieved with no chemicals whatsoever. If a surface can be cleaned without the use of any chemicals – Green or otherwise – this is a very significant development and one that can have a big impact on the users of cleaning products, the environment, as well as sustainability. After all, the typical American office building uses about 1,600 pounds of cleaning chemicals every year. However, the much bigger picture is that an estimated six billion pounds of chemicals are used in facilities for cleaning annually in the United States.

Before venturing further, we need to clarify exactly what chemical-free cleaning entails. It does not mean simply cleaning surfaces with water and eliminating chemicals.  Instead, I am referring to examples of chemical-free cleaning technologies already being used to clean thousands of facilities such as the following:

  • Steam vapor systems have proven effective at cleaning walls, floors, restroom fixtures, and other surfaces; with some systems, the heat produced, approximately 248 degrees F, is hot enough to kill many forms of bacteria and germs, to emulsify grease and oil, as well as eliminate other surface contaminants.
  • Some spray-and-vac cleaning systems, as they are referred to by ISSA,* use pressurized water to loosen and remove soils. These systems can be used with chemicals; however, in many situations, they have proven effective without the use of chemicals.
  • Activated and electrolyzed water systems are different and used for different purposes, but two of the things they share in common is that they use electricity to turn water into a cleaning agent without the need for cleaning chemicals.

We should also note that there are other benefits of chemical-free cleaning, other than just the fact that it requires no chemicals. As referenced earlier, it also makes cleaning much more sustainable. Many conventional cleaning products are made with non-renewable petroleum by-products. Further, cleaning chemicals must be packaged using considerable amounts of paper and plastic and shipped all over the world, contributing to greenhouse gasses. This is all eliminated with chemical-free cleaning.

Pros and Cons

As you can imagine, not everyone in the professional cleaning industry nor facility managers are jumping on the chemical-free cleaning bandwagon. Many have serious questions about using no chemicals to clean, such as will the surfaces really be germ free? Do chemical-free cleaning systems effectively clean surfaces so that they look clean? Does it require more time and labor to clean with chemical-free equipment? Are chemical-free cleaning systems more costly than traditional cleaning systems?

These questions have merit and we cannot say definitively at this time that we have all the answers.  For instance, in one situation, a contract cleaning company reports that the use of chemical-free cleaning technologies has proven very effective in cleaning K–12 schools as well as preschools. However, the assistant director of building services for a major university has been reluctant to use chemical-free cleaning systems because he questioned how “thoroughly clean a surface is” after using such a no-chemical cleaning approach.

These experiences tell us that the jury is still out when it comes to chemical-free cleaning. Most likely, as these technologies are put into use in more situations, concerns and issues will be addressed and we will have some solid information to go on.

However, while I do not believe we will reach a stage where chemical-free cleaning will become modus operandi, as has become the case with Green cleaning, it is becoming increasingly clear to me as well as many in the professional cleaning industry, including many manufacturers of cleaning chemicals, that chemical-free cleaning and technologies will play a much bigger role in professional cleaning in years to come. It will likely follow a similar pattern to that of Green cleaning chemicals.

There was considerable resistance and misunderstanding about Green cleaning products initially.  However, with Green certification, advanced technologies, and a better understanding of how environmentally preferable cleaning products work along with their proven effectiveness, the resistance dissipated. A similar pattern will likely occur with chemical-free cleaning in many cleaning situations as well.