Campus & Community

Greening Harvard’s cleaning

4 min read

Efforts under way to reduce waste, toxins

'Green' cleaning supplies, traditionally more costly, have become less expensive recently. (Staff photo Rose Lincoln/Harvard News Office)

A two-year pilot program testing the use of environmentally friendly cleaning supplies and techniques is ready for University-wide distribution, the program’s organizers say, in a move that could reduce waste and improve indoor air quality.

“Traditional cleaning products contain a tremendous amount of hazardous substances. Our interest is to find a way to reduce the toxins in cleaning without reducing the efficacy of cleaning,” said Thomas Vautin, associate vice president for facilities and environmental services.

Jason Luke, custodial manager for Facilities Maintenance Operations (FMO), said there has been a constantly evolving push in the cleaning industry toward using more recycled materials, reducing waste, and using less-toxic cleaning chemicals for some time.

In the past few years, Luke said, the green cleaning movement has gained additional momentum as the desire to build environmentally friendly buildings gained steam and as the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) green building rating system took into account cleaning practices in awarding its certification.

“People are concerned about indoor air quality. People are concerned about toxins and carcinogens in the [environment],” Luke said.

FMO’s green cleaning operation cuts down on indoor air pollution and on contaminants in the waste stream – both in the water and in solid waste – by using green-certified cleaning chemicals that are made from less toxic compounds. They also use paper products using postconsumer recycled materials and minimize or eliminate bleaching in the papermaking process. They use more exact measuring dispensers to avoid using more cleaning chemicals than necessary, and use washable microfiber cloths and mops instead of paper towels and cotton mops. The microfiber cleaning cloths cut down on the paper waste from paper towels because they can be cleaned and reused, and the microfiber mops need significantly less cleaning chemical to do the same job as a cotton mop.

FMO is also re-evaluating its regular maintenance procedures with things such as floor refinishing. Many refinishing products contain metals, Luke said, which will eventually be removed from the floor and wind up in the waste stream. FMO is looking at different floor surfaces and seeing if alternatives, such as leaving natural stone surfaces exposed, are appropriate.

Luke said green-cleaning supplies had been more expensive than traditional supplies, but the cost has come down in recent years and is now roughly the same as more traditional cleaning methods.

FMO is a University-run operation that offers cleaning services on a fee-for-service basis across the University. FMO currently provides about half the cleaning services at Harvard, with the other half coming from private contractors. Luke said that now that the practices have been tested, FMO is ready to offer them to customers across campus.

The program, which has been tested in four different locations in recent years, reduces the use of toxic cleaning chemicals by changing to cleaners that have been certified by Green Seal, a nonprofit organization that identifies environmentally friendly products.

Antje Danielson, project manager for the Harvard Green Campus Initiative, worked with Luke on the program. Danielson directed research into different green cleaning supplies labeling standards, settling on Green Seal as most appropriate for Harvard.

Danielson said the University plans to provide cleaning supplies to students beginning next year as a way to reduce the mountains of hazardous cleaning chemicals left behind each spring when students move out.

“From next year on, we’ll provide Green Seal cleaning supplies to students because at the end of the year students leave their cleaning supplies behind and we have this huge stock of pretty hazardous chemicals to deal with,” Danielson said.

Roy Lauridsen, facilities manager at the Divinity School, where a two-year trial of the green cleaning procedures has run, said the program has produced results as good or better than previous cleaning services. He said the number of cleaning chemicals has been reduced from around 40 to just four. In addition, he said, there is anecdotal evidence that the incidence of rashes, allergies, and other adverse reactions to the cleaning chemicals is down among cleaning personnel.

Jyoti Rana, FMO’s custodial supervisor at the Divinity School, and Gabriel Tejada, a custodian at the school, said the new products are less caustic and easier to use because they’re packaged in a way that takes the guesswork out of mixing chemicals. Tejada said he’s noticed fewer incidents of his eyes being red and irritated from the chemical fumes.

“As custodians, they’re very happy,” Rana said.