GSA Cleans Up Its Buildings and the Environment
The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) manages 179 million square feet of real estate. With 1,800 buildings throughout the United States, GSA is, in many ways, the federal government’s landlord.
Like many landlords throughout North America, GSA is embracing “green” cleaning. It is switching its custodial services contracts and cleaning product purchases to safer, more environmentally preferable methods without sacrificing price or performance.
Protecting Worker Health and the Environment
There are a variety of reasons GSA is transitioning to green cleaning. One obvious reason is that several Presidential Executive Orders mandate that all federal agencies adopt more environmentally preferable practices. Executive Order 13101, for example, requires federal agencies to buy “environmentally preferable” products and services, which it defines as “products or services that have a lesser or reduced effect on human health and the environment when compared with competing products or services that serve the same purpose.”
While the Executive Orders are an important factor, GSA appears even more motivated by a strong desire to provide continually improving services to its customers. GSA recognizes the important role it plays ensuring all federal agencies have safe working environments. Switching to green cleaning is just one of the ways GSA is providing this security to its customers.
Defining Green Cleaning
Green cleaning involves a variety of improvements to the traditional cleaning process. According to Stephen Ashkin, a nationally recognized green cleaning expert who has worked closely with GSA and some of its cleaning contractors, green cleaning is more than just replacing traditional cleaning products with safer alternatives. Green cleaning requires “examining each facility’s entire cleaning process both inside and outside the facility, identifying areas that can be improved, developing a plan, executing it, measuring the results, and continually improving the plan and its execution.”
Some of the aspects of a good green cleaning program that have been adopted by GSA and that are recommended by Ashkin and others include:
• Switching to Safer Cleaning Products– Specify safer products. Many green cleaning advocates specify products certified by Green Seal, www.govinfo.bz/5960-252, or Environmental Choice, www.govinfo.bz/5960-253. Both organizations have developed extensive, consensus-based standards for a wide range of cleaning products. Before a product can be certified, manufacturers must submit their products to extensive testing to demonstrate that the products are safe and that they work as well as traditional products. In addition, both programs visit the manufacturing facilities to ensure the products are manufactured as described by the manufacturers.
Both Green Seal and Environmental Choice developed their standards and operate their certification programs consistent with international guidelines. The guidelines include ISO 14020 and 14024 environmental label guidelines, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Final Guidance on Environmentally Preferable Purchasing, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission Environmental Marketing Guidelines, and the environmental standard guidelines developed by the Consumer Union, a non-profit consumer advocacy organization. In addition, both Green Seal and Environmental Choice meet the requirements for and are members of the Global Eco-labelling Network, www.govinfo.bz/5960-254.
• Improving Employee Training– Employee training is especially important according to Ashkin and other green cleaning experts because 90 percent of a cleaning budget is labor costs with only two to five percent related to chemical costs. If the workers are not using the products properly (whether they are using green products or not), facilities could be spending more money and adversely impacting their health and the environment more than necessary.
• Implementing Flexible Cleaning Schedules– GSA and other building owners are modifying cleaning routines to move away from strict schedules for certain highly polluting cleaning activities like floor stripping. Instead, they are moving towards more flexible schedules that allow floors to be stripped only when needed based on objective criteria developed by the building owner and the janitorial workers or cleaning company. Not only does this reduce costs, but it also reduces the amount of product used to strip and refinish a floor and at the same time reduces the associated human health and environmental impacts from the manufacture, use, and disposal of these products.
• Using Better Cleaning Equipment and Practices–Ashkin emphasizes the importance of placing doormats at entryways to reduce the amount of dirt entering a building. He also encourages the use of microfiber mops and cloths to reduce the need for cleaning chemicals.
In addition, he strongly recommends the use of high filtration vacuum cleaners to reduce the dust generated by traditional vacuums. One of the benefits of more effective vacuums and microfiber dusting cloths is that they can reduce the frequency of vacuuming and dusting (and the associated costs) because they increase the amount of dust that is actually captured and removed.
• Using Recycled-Content Products When Possible– GSA, like all U.S. federal agencies and others using federal funds, is required to buy recycled-content products, including janitorial supplies such as paper towels, tissue products, and trash bags. The EPA recommends recycled-content percentages for these and other products at: www.govinfo.bz/5960-255.
Integrating Green Cleaning into Green Buildings
As part of its broader environmental commitment, GSA pledged three years ago that all of its buildings would meet the basic requirements for the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification. Buildings meeting LEED certification requirements are among the most energy efficient and environmentally friendly buildings in the world. To learn more, visit: www.govinfo.bz/5960-256.
The LEED requirements for existing buildings (LEED-EB) include several green cleaning requirements such as specific credits for protecting indoor air quality, reducing toxic material use, and implementing green cleaning strategies.
Lance Davis, a GSA architect and sustainable design expert, understands the connections between GSA’s LEED requirements and green cleaning. He regularly conducts sustainable design trainings and always includes green cleaning as part of the training. He notes that green cleaning goes hand-in-hand with sustainable design because anything brought into a building ultimately affects its occupants.
“There are so many examples to share,” Davis reports. “For instance, it makes no sense from an environmental perspective for a building to use a super energy efficient motor for a heating or cooling device, but then clean [the building] with chemicals that may make some building occupants sick. GSA’s green buildings require green cleaning.”
Working with GSA Contractors
Many of GSA’s buildings are cleaned by NISH-affiliated nonprofit agencies operating under the Javits-Wagner-O’Day (JWOD) program. The JWOD program dates to 1938 when it was established to provide employment opportunities for the blind by selling products and services to the federal government. In 1971, the program was expanded to include opportunities for people with other disabilities. NISH is the agency designated by JWOD to provide employment services for the severely disabled. It is also one of GSA’s largest janitorial services contractors.
As an organization employing workers with a variety of disabilities, including learning disabilities, NISH recognized early on the value of using the safest, most effective cleaning chemicals and procedures. Under the leadership of Blaine Robinson, NISH operations manager, NISH worked with Stephen Ashkin to develop a specialized green cleaning training program in 2001. The program ensures all NISH employees know how to properly clean a facility using the appropriate procedures, equipment, and safer cleaning chemicals in the proper concentrations.
NISH’s commitment to green cleaning has been rewarded with increased business. GSA’s National Capital Region (NCR), for example, now gives NISH the right-of-first-refusal on all new cleaning contracts.
GSA’s National Capital Region
GSA’s National Capital Region manages $30 million in cleaning contracts for 61 buildings and 23 million square feet of federal government space. It is responsible for providing a safe working environment for 40,000 government workers.
Last year, NCR accelerated its transition to green cleaning by adopting a comprehensive Green Custodial Specification and partnering more closely with NISH. By the end of 2005, 40 out of the 59 NCR custodial contracts larger than $25,000 annually incorporated the new green specifications. NCR anticipates all of its custodial contracts will be converted by 2008 as the remaining 19 contracts expire and are recompeted.
Its new and improved green custodial specification explains federal requirements to use recycled-content, biobased, and other environmentally preferable products. It references Green Seal and ASTM standards and requires the use of less toxic chemicals.
Some of the green cleaning requirements included in the NCR specifications include the following:
- Preference shall be given to concentrated cleaning chemicals that use ecologically sound packaging, are phosphate-free, non-corrosive, non-combustible, non-poisonous, non-reactive, biobased, and fully biodegradable.
- The contractor will take every precaution to ensure that only safe and environmentally preferable products are used. Information can be obtained from federal, state and local agencies concerning safe chemical cleaning materials. Preference will be given to cleaning products meeting Green Seal’s Standard GS-37 for Commercial and Institutional Cleaners, www.govinfo.bz/5960-252. Preference will also be given to floor finishes and floor maintenance products that are free of heavy metals, such as zinc. NOTE: Environmentally preferable means products or services that have a lesser or reduced effect on human health and the environment when compared with competing products or services that serve the same purpose. The contractor will need to submit a brief narrative (less than one page) for each individual product outlining how each meets the requirements of this definition, as a comparison to traditional products used for the same purpose. Preference will be given to those which include independent verification of the claims made in the brief product narrative.
- The contractor is required to provide necessary and ongoing client-relations training for their employees. The training will stress stewardship, the importance of conflict avoidance, and problem resolution. …Information on stewardship, training, and other issues can be found in ASTM E1971-98: Standard Guide on Stewardship for Cleaning Commercial and Institutional Buildings, www.govinfo.bz/5960-258.
Green Cleaning at GSA Region 10
Paul Gallegos oversees janitorial, concessions, recycling, and others programs for GSA’s Region 10, which includes Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. When Gallegos attended a green cleaning seminar at NISH a few years ago, he decided to implement green cleaning throughout all of the buildings in his region.
Gallegos began by researching green cleaning processes and products. As part of his research, he collaborated with all of the building contractors to develop appropriate green cleaning criteria. Their work examined cost, function, labor, and other issues.
At the time they began their work, there were “a couple of cleaning products we needed [that] had not yet been reformulated as ‘green,'” according to Gallegos. “So we set up a process to review cleaning products regularly with our contractors and [to] integrate green cleaning items as they became available.”
The biggest challenge Gallegos faced in implementing the green cleaning program was selling the ideas to the individuals responsible for making the change–the contractors and their cleaning staff.
“Here you are telling janitorial services contractors that have been cleaning very successfully for years [that] they must change their products and processes,” Gallegos remembered. “It raises a huge fear of the unknown.”
Their fears, however, proved to be false. It turned out that the green cleaning products clean just as effectively if not more effectively than the traditional products. Labor costs remained the same; they did not increase as a result of the transition to safer products.
“All of our customers have been really happy with the green cleaning program, our contractors are happy with it, and there are no cost differentials,” Gallegos reports. “The bottom line is there is just no reason not to do green cleaning.”
The Future of Green Cleaning at GSA
Raheem Cash, the Director of GSA’s Public Buildings Service Environment Program, is a big proponent of GSA’s green cleaning programs. He strongly encourages all contractors to become knowledgeable about green cleaning.
“I believe that we’ll get to the point where we don’t say ‘green cleaning’ anymore, we’ll just say ‘cleaning,'” says Cash.
Stephen Ashkin agrees, “It’s not a matter of if all government agencies and buildings will adopt green cleaning, but when.”
For additional information about safer cleaning products, visit the following resources:
- Center for a New American Dream: www.govinfo.bz/5960-259–Includes background materials on the history of the green cleaning movement and an extensive green cleaning resource list.
- Environmental Choice Program: www.govinfo.bz/5960-253–Presents Environmental Choice green cleaning standards and links to manufacturers making products meeting the standards.
- Green Seal: www.govinfo.bz/5960-252–Provides information on the Green Seal green cleaning standards and links to manufacturers making products meeting its standards.
- INFORM: www.govinfo.bz/5960-260–Issued a report, Cleaning for Health, that highlights ways of reducing the environmental and human health impacts of traditional cleaning chemicals.
- Janitorial Products Pollution Prevention Program: www.govinfo.bz/5960-261–Details many of the hazards associated with traditional cleaning chemicals and recommends ways of avoiding them.
- Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s Guidelines for Green Building Housekeeping and Maintenance: www.govinfo.bz/5960-262–Highlights ways of reducing the environmental and human health impacts associated with cleaning and includes chapters on selecting cleaning products, developing a pollution prevention plan, and suggested cleaning practices.
- White House Office of the Federal Environmental Executive www.govinfo.bz/5960-263–Highlights a variety of initiatives throughout the Federal government to improve cleaning practices, including contract language and an impressive variety of green cleaning presentations.
For a list of more than 200 cleaning products from more than 80 manufacturers certified as meeting the Green Seal and Environmental Choice standards, visit www.govinfo.bz/5960-251.
Human Health and Environmental Impacts of Traditional Cleaning Products
According to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) funded project, at least some of the ingredients found in one out of every three commercial cleaning products are harmful. Traditional cleaning products can contain chemicals that can cause reproductive disorders, major organ damage, and permanent eye damage.
Some of the chemicals and chemical compounds found in cleaning products that raise human health concerns include the following:
Alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs) are commonly used in cleaning products. Laboratory studies indicate APEs function as “endocrine disrupters,” which means they act as artificial hormones. The hormone-like effects of APEs have been linked with the reproductive disorders seen in wild life, including deformed sexual organs. Further research is underway to clarify the effects on humans.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are found in many cleaning products. VOCs can contribute to poor air quality, including smog formation. They can also cause asthma attacks in some people.
Other common health problems associated with cleaning chemicals include headaches, dizziness, and fatigue. Some cleaning product ingredients can also trigger breathing difficulties for people with asthma or other respiratory ailments. Furthermore, cleaning chemicals are washed down the drain and find their way into drinking water, lakes, and streams, adversely affecting plant and animal life and threatening public health.
Switching to safer cleaning products can significantly improve indoor air quality, reduce cleaning-related health problems and absenteeism, and increase productivity and morale. Green cleaners can also reduce negative environmental effects.
The benefits of green cleaning products are significantly magnified if they are used as part of a comprehensive green cleaning program that includes proper employee training, modern equipment, and appropriate, site-specific cleaning protocols.
Purchasing Network Offers Renewable Energy Purchasing Assistance
The Responsible Purchasing Network (RPN), a project of the Center for a New American Dream, helps institutions incorporate environmental, human health, and social justice considerations into their purchasing decisions. RPN promotes responsible purchasing through outreach, trainings and presentations, and conference calls, as well as the Responsible Purchasing Update, an e-newsletter.
In collaboration with Think Energy, RPN is launching a program to assist state and local governments with the purchase of renewable energy sources for at least 25 percent of their energy portfolios. For updates and information on the energy program, visit: www.govinfo.bz/5960-264
“We’ll provide technical advice, assistance with product selection, negotiations with vendors, and in-person trainings,” says Chris O’Brien, Director, Responsible Purchasing Network (RPN) at the Center for a New American Dream. “This assistance will be provided to a small number of jurisdictions through a competitive application process that we will make public in April.”
To receive the Responsible Purchasing Update, an e-newsletter featuring new tools, resources, and programs and other periodic communication from RPN, send an
e-mail with “JOIN” in the subject line to firstname.lastname@example.org.
California Launches New Green Web Site
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration recently launched a new “Green California” Web site. The site provides resources to help state and local government agencies as well as businesses become more environmentally sustainable and energy efficient. Specifically, it offers information to help California institutions comply with a December 2004 executive order that set a goal of reducing the energy purchase of state-owned buildings by 20 percent by 2015 and encouraged other institutions to commit to the same goal. The site also includes an Environmentally Preferable Purchasing Best Practices Manual. Visit: http://www.govinfo.bz/5960-265.
Federal Agencies Sign Sustainable Buildings MOU
A first-of-its-kind Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed by 17 Federal agencies and the Executive Office of the President on leadership in the design, construction, and operation of High-Performance and Sustainable Buildings. The MOU, a result of the White House Summit on Federal Sustainable Buildings, commits parties to establish and follow a common set of sustainable Guiding Principles for integrated design, energy performance, water conservation, indoor environmental quality, and materials. Signatories include the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, NASA, and the Department of Justice.
NJ Mandates Green Cleaners
New Jersey ‘s Governor Richard J. Codey signed an executive order that requires state agencies to switch to cleaning products that are safer for human health and the environment. The order also encourages counties, municipalities, and school districts to comply with the order. In addition to establishing guidelines to help agencies implement the order, the Department of the Treasury will report on the effectiveness of and compliance with the order to the governor and legislature within a year.
Air Force Tops EPA’s List of Green Power Purchasers
The U.S. EPA released its latest Green Power Top 25 list, which highlights institutions that have purchased the most renewable energy as members of its voluntary Green Power Partnership. The U.S. Air Force tops the list with their annual purchase of more than 1 million MWh.