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Habitat Magazine Insider Guide



Windex No More: Making the Switch to Green Cleaning

Does your super keep your building sparkling? Are the windows wiped clean, the doorknobs polished, and the floor swept and washed once a week? Do you love the smell of Windex in the morning? Well, that scent of glass cleaner could be telling you something. Telling you it’s time to switch to something less toxic.

Since 1995, when Governor George Pataki mandated that all public and private schools switch to green cleaning products – the law went into effect this past September – a kind of green consciousness has been taking root in New York households. Urged on by the U.S. Green Building Council, which offers LEED (Leading Efficient Energy Design) certification for buildings made with environmentally sound products, the trend toward green is growing ever stronger. The trend is nowhere more evident than in New York City co-ops, where the population is “literate, they read about it and ask questions,” says Dick Koral, secretary/treasurer of the Superintendents Technical Association. To date, however, “I don’t think most supers know there’s a link between their own health and tenants’ health and the use of green products.”

There is now an array of experts lined up to change all that. At a planned November New York Clean Buildings Association conference in Manhattan, indoor air experts, toxicology specialists, and environmental attorneys were scheduled to speak to a group of building owners, managers, architects, and builders about how to improve indoor air quality and reduce airborne pollutants. A chief way to do that, says environmental consultant Stan Halpern, is to start at the ground level, switching from petrochemical-based cleaning products to bio-based alternative cleaning products.

Switching to green cleaning supplies means using ones that are bio-based, meaning fruit-, vegetable-, and plant-based alternatives, says Halpern, whose company, Healthy Clean Buildings (, supplies green cleaning products to commercial and residential properties around the city.

“With bio-based alternatives, it’s about finding things that don’t impact the environment as readily as what exists now,” says Halpern, who brings a missionary zeal to his promotion of green cleaning products. “When you spray Windex on a pane of glass, there are three poisons – ammonia, isoproponal alcohol and 2-butoxyethanol.”

Citing a study done by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2000 in Santa Clara, California, Halpern says 2-butoxyethanol was found to be absorbed through the skin and over an extended period of time would “poison your blood, cause damage to kidney and liver, and may cause pregnancy problems in women.”

When the Vanguard Chelsea at 77 West 24th Street did a green retrofit over a year ago, all kinds of cost-saving and energy-efficient measures were implemented, including switching from incandescent to fluorescent lighting and installing new microfiber filters in the air vents. At the same time, the building switched to green cleaning products provided by Every Supply Company (, which reduced the building’s cleaning supply bill, says the resident manager, Michael Tierney. Instead of buying Windex, Spic and Span, Lysol, and ammonia in bulk, the building relies on a hydroperoxide concentrate, green-seal certified, that is dispensed through four dispensers and mixed with water. Depending on the use of the product, whether to clean windows and surfaces or floors and carpets, the level of concentrate is adjusted accordingly. Since making the switch to green cleaning products, there are fewer odors in the air, “the air quality has improved and the overall building environment has improved,” says Tierney.

Tierney adds that tenants seem to have noticed the change, remarking how clean the public areas of the building seem. And not only is the building cleaner, “instead of a shopping list of ten different products to clean the building, the one product is doing several jobs,” says the delighted resident manager.

While there are enormous health benefits to getting rid of ammonia, bleach, and other petrochemical-based products, which can trigger asthma attacks and respiratory distress, the reason buildings switch to green cleaning products is because of the cost savings, says Dino Leva, president of Every Supply Company, a building maintenance supply firm. “Buildings change and convert not because of the health benefits, but because of the economic benefits. What sells the product is the economics,” says Leva. “The dispenser holds one gallon of concentrate. If you choose glass cleaner, every time you dispense, mixing with the building’s water source, the net cost of taking 32 ounces out of the dispenser is approximately five cents.”

People often make the mistake of thinking that if a product doesn’t have a strong smell, it won’t do the job. With green cleaning products, you can’t just squirt and wipe – you need more “dwell” time, says Halpern. The product needs to sit longer on a surface, but in exchange, it cleans more completely, without leaving chemical-based residues that will attract dust and grime.

Let’s say a 32-ounce bottle of Windex costs $3.80. Dispensing a quart of green product (known in the trade as H2Orange2 – composed of orange oil, stabilized hydrogen peroxide and biodegradable soap) will cost 5 cents per quart for an entire building. A bottle of Fantastic costs $3.09 for 32 ounces. To get the same level cleaning product from the dispenser will cost 50 cents a quart. To dispense a sanitizing agent similar in effect to Lysol and bleach costs 50 cents a quart, and for the worst stains, that need an industrial-strength cleanser, a bleaching agent is dispensed that costs $2 per quart. “The real savings is the concentrate through the dispenser,” says Halpern.

So, how do you initiate a green cleaning program in your building? The first step is to have the manager call in an environmental consultant, who will do a free consultation. The consultant will walk through the building, note all the surfaces that need to be cleaned, and offer a price proposal for the green cleaning products.

The next step is to have the consultant meet with the board to present the proposal. Finally, if the board agrees to the proposal, the real education begins, training the building staff on how to use the dispenser and at what level to mix the concentrate and water. The process is about the education of the property manager, the board, and the building staff. “This is a whole reeducation, retraining, and reconditioning [of] people” to rethink what a clean product should act and smell like, says Halpern.

After the initial staff training, the environmental consultant will return once or twice a year for follow-up training, or to go over the basics again. Green cleaning is a “win-win for the workers, the tenants, and the building managers,” says Linda Nelson, director of training for 32B/J, the maintenance workers’ union. The union has been offering green cleaning seminars to its members for more than a year now in New York City, and the results have been an ever-greater demand for green cleaning products, says Nelson.

“A lot of members are superintendents and resident managers of larger buildings, and they do have the responsibility to order the products, so they have been completely involved and supportive of this line of training.” The union is not only focused on educating people about the harmful effects of petrochemical products, “but how to make a safer work environment for everybody,” says Nelson.

In response to requests from building employees and residents, both Halpern and Leva have come up with a residential cleaning supply list that offers individual consumers green cleaning alternatives to petrochemical-based products. The products range from microfiber rags that trap and pick up dust – replacing cloth rags – to BioBags (kitchen trash bags) that, at $6.99 for a package of 12, cost less than a 10-bag box of Hefty at $6.59 a box. There is Bio-cleanse, a scouring cleanser, at $4.95 a bottle, which serves as a safer replacement for a 32-ounce bottle of Lysol at $4.19 a bottle. Bonax, a wood floor cleaner, $6.99 a bottle, is a safer replacement for Murphy’s Oil Soap, at $3.79 for a 32-ounce bottle.

At the Vanguard Chelsea, each new tenant gets a gift box of green cleaning supplies, including laundry detergent, dishwashing liquid, band dish towels, and toilet paper made out of recycled paper. The idea is to get the new tenants into the habit of buying green cleaning products, so the building can maintain an overall healthier atmosphere. “I think people do notice,” says Tierney, of the effect of using the hydroperoxide concentrate on the building’s public space. “I think it’s a good thing. You’re putting less odors into the air [and] you’re not masking any odors.”

“It’s a whole process of reeducating people to the idea of green cleaning,” continues Tierney. “You start the building staff out with microfiber rags that trap the dust, you use a HEPA [High-Efficiency Particulate Air Filter] vacuum cleaner that traps dirt instead of stirring it up, and you use a wash bucket with two compartments, so as you rinse the mop out the dirty water doesn’t go back into the clean. It’s an ongoing learning thing. There are no petrochemicals in there. From the porter’s point of view, I would say it’s a healthier process.”

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