By Stephen Ashkin, President, The Ashkin Group
It comes as a surprise to many people, including those who work in the industry, just how much waste is generated by the professional cleaning industry. Although the estimates are now a few years old, and may actually be higher today than before, most estimates are that one billion pounds, enough to fill 40 large dump trucks, of discarded janitorial equipment head for U.S. landfills each year.
It is also believed that more than six billion pounds of cleaning chemicals are consumed annually in the United States. As they are used, the five- and ten-gallon containers they come in, along with related packaging, are tossed into large trash receptacles as waste.
Further, it is estimated that nearly five billion pounds of janitorial paper—items such as toilet paper, paper towels, paper used for cleaning, and so on—are consumed and discarded each year. Although the paper industry has made significant strides in recent years to introduce consumer-accepted Green paper products, much of this paper is derived from virgin tree fiber, equivalent to almost 30 million trees.
This situation is highly unsustainable. Not only are huge amounts of cleaning-related products, tools, and equipment ending up in landfills, but many of these products are derived from natural, nonrenewable resources.
Green to Sustainable
Although there was some initial reluctance, in recent years, the professional cleaning industry has embraced Green Cleaning. Using effective cleaning chemicals, tools, and equipment that have a reduced impact on health and the environment, Green is the new norm in the industry. By this I mean, facility administrators and cleaning professionals now typically ask for an environmentally preferable cleaning product first, and only select a non-Green product if one is not available or does not meet their needs.
As to waste and recycling, we have already mentioned that many Green paper products are now available. Virtually every leading manufacturer of paper products now carries a Green line or is in the process of developing one. Here too, selecting recycled paper products is becoming the new norm, especially now that Green paper products are cost competitive with many conventional paper products and meet end-user satisfaction.
Going Green has also had an impact on the quality of many cleaning tools and equipment. Poorly designed or “throwaway” tools and equipment, manufactured to last for a relatively short time and having few if any environmental attributes, are being replaced by higher quality, environmentally preferable machines. This machine last longer and, because they do, fewer raw materials are necessary to build them and the stream of cleaning equipment tossed into landfills has slowed considerably.
Another step the professional cleaning industry is taking is to reduce the amount of water used in cleaning. This was not even a consideration a short while ago, but it is a front-burner issue today. Low-moisture floor care equipment, used to clean and refinish floors, is now available, using less water to perform cleaning tasks than older models.
Further, some carpet cleaning extractors have made significant inroads into reduced water consumption. A conventional portable carpet extractor uses as much as 1.5 gallons of water per minute. Some low-moisture extractors have reduced this to less than a gallon per minute, and at least one manufacturer of recycling extractors has reduced the amount of water and cleaning solution needed for cleaning drastically. These machines can recycle water/cleaning solution up to seven times before it must be discarded.
What’s Lies Ahead?
One of the most recent developments having an impact on all segments of the professional cleaning industry—manufacturers, distributors, and cleaning professionals—as well as facility managers is the use of what are termed sustainable “dashboards” to monitor the use of fuel, energy, water, and waste/recycling. Some systems require no special equipment and are totally Web based.
These dashboards help managers monitor their use of natural resources and waste generation while also helping them reduce their environmental footprint and related costs. When the systems are first implemented, users are able to identify where they are now—how much energy, water, fuel, waste, and other items they currently consume to operate their facilities—and then use this as a benchmark to track improvements.
It might be a wise idea for those in other industries to pay attention to what evolves in the professional cleaning industry. Slowly but surely, it has become one of the most environmentally responsible industries in the country and serves as an example of what can and is being accomplished.