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Water, Cleaning, and Sustainability

The professional cleaning industry is far larger than most people realize, with more than $50 billion estimated in annual sales, and its impact on the environment and sustainability is considerable as well. An estimated 6 billion pounds of cleaning chemicals, many from nonrenewable petroleum products, are used each year; 450 billion pounds of paper products, some of which does get recycled but a large amount is simply discarded as waste; and an estimated 25 million pounds of cleaning equipment end up in landfills each year.

Further, many people would be surprised at just how much water the cleaning industry and cleaning in general consumes. For instance, many cleaning workers hose down commercial kitchen floors using wall-mounted, chemical/water-dispensing system. Although effective, these systems can release more than 10 gallons of water per minute, 600 gallons in an hour.

Conventional carpet extractors can use as much as 1.5 gallons of water per minute. Older models may use more. To perform an hour’s worth of carpet cleaning means as much as 90 gallons of water is necessary. And floor cleaning in general and restorative floor care in particular, which typically involves stripping and refinishing floors, also require significant amounts of water and both carpet care and floor care generates waste that can be considered hazardous.*

However, the industry is making significant strides in becoming more environmentally responsible and sustainable, and this applies to water consumption as well. The following are some of the more recent technologies helping to make this possible:

Floor cleaning alternatives: As water becomes more of a concern — and cost –  the use of water hoses to clean commercial kitchen floors on a daily basis is being reconsidered.  Mopping will likely take its place. However, mopping still uses a lot of water and some studies report that as spaghetti-type mops become soiled, they can actually spread soils and contaminants instead of remove them. An alternative to conventional mopping is the use of trolley buckets that dispense a precise amount of water/chemical directly on to floors; the floor is deck brushed as needed. A wet vac system can be used to vacuum up the moisture as well as the soils. Initial reports indicate this is a healthier way to clean floors and also more water responsible.

Carpet care: The development of low-moisture carpet extractors, which use less than a gallon of water per minute, has reduced the amount of water used in carpet cleaning. However, this is still a considerable amount of water. Recycling carpet extractors, which filter and recycle cleaning solution as they are used, appear to be the next step in reducing water consumption in carpet cleaning. According to some studies, instead of using 90 gallons of water, as in our example earlier, recycling systems may only use 10 to 15. Additionally in some cases, the extractor’s wand head, a section of the machine often overlooked, has been re-engineered so that it “atomizes” the cleaning solution. This helps the machine clean effectively with less water and chemical consumption.

Restorative floor care: Typically, when floors are stripped, a rotary pad machine is used. Although these machines work well and have served us well, they tend to be most effective cleaning the tops of floor surfaces. To clean grout areas, uneven floors, or porous flooring requires more effort and more water. An alternative is a new type of floor machine now available from a few US manufacturers. Referred to as cylindrical brush technology, these machines use counter-rotating brushes instead of pads. The bristles on the brush have the ability to reach deeper into the floor, removing soils and contaminants, requiring an estimated 30 percent less chemical and water.

What is also going to help the professional cleaning industry become more water responsible is simply awareness of the need for water conservation. Until recently, it really has not been a concern. However, that is changing and is likely to change even further. Reports are that the new LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, certification requirements are going to put a much greater emphasis on facility water consumption for everything, most specifically cleaning.

While becoming more sustainable does have its benefits, some facility managers wonder if greener cleaning services are more expensive. Interestingly, a 2010 survey by advertising and marketing firm HitMan Advertising asked US carpet cleaning contractors this very question. More than half said they had no plans to increase charges when offering or marketing their green services.

A similar attitude most likely prevails throughout the professional cleaning industry and the reason is simple. “Green” is now the new norm in the professional cleaning industry. Many contractors or in-house cleaning professionals will likely select a green cleaning product first and only select a conventional product if an environmentally preferable one is either not available or performs unsatisfactorily. And, because most green cleaning products are cost competitive with conventional products, there really is no reason for them to be more costly.

*In California, waste generated from stripping floors is considered hazardous waste and must be disposed of according to specific rules and regulations.

Doug Berjer has an extensive background of industry experience in the JanSan sector.  He has worked for a large JanSan distributorship in St. Louis, MO, as their equipment specialist and has also worked as the operations manager for a large building service contractor that specialized in servicing shopping malls and anchor store retailers throughout North America. He is now brand manager for CFR, Continuous Flow Recycling extractors, based out of West Chicago, IL.

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One thought on “Water, Cleaning, and Sustainability

  1. Doug,
    Thanks for sharing. I had no idea the professional cleaning industry was so impactful.

    For your suggestions and insights, if I am reading correctly it refers to industry on the whole, and typically to larger firms with a national presences.

    I am curious what you thoughts are for indepenent folks.

    Do you see this rolling down to them as well. Do they follow suit because its where the industury is going? Is there a general industry association or group that might help drive the operations and direction of these professionals who operate outside the larger firms?

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