Sustainable Cleaning Step 1 – Choose products that are designed for sustainability as well as safety
Early ideas about ‘green cleaning’ focused on replacing ingredients to try to make products safer for the environment. Safety is essential for sustainability, but the reality is that products are safe for both people and the environment when used and disposed of as directed.
The real opportunity to improve the sustainability of cleaning by choosing better products is to choose ones which are designed not only to be safe, but to make the cleaning process as a whole more sustainable.
Designing cleaning products for sustainability
Most of the environmental impact of cleaning occurs or is determined after the product has been made. So the most important contribution cleaning product manufacturers can make to improving sustainability is by designing products which deliver good, reliable, performance while helping reduce overall environmental impact across the whole cleaning life cycle. They do this in a variety of ways, for example by formulating ingredients to work well at low temperatures, so cleaning uses less energy.
Another important approach is by developing concentrated products and accompanying dosing systems for dilution at the point of use to save packaging and reduce transport impacts, not least fuel use and CO2 emissions. For larger users, product delivered in returnable semi-bulk containers can be an alternative way of making significant savings in packaging.
Optimizing performance at a level which reliably gets things clean first time is vital for sustainability. Poor performance can lead to re-work and re-washing which doubles all the other impacts in the life cycle. Sometimes it leads to over-dosing to try to compensate, which multiplies all the product and packaging impacts proportionately. Failing to get things properly clean can lead at best to customer dissatisfaction, or worse, especially in the food, catering and health sectors, to hygiene failure and direct harmful consequences. Both of these are economically unsustainable.
Ensuring products are safe for people and the environment
Manufacturers have a legal responsibility to ensure their products can be safely used, and to provide safety information to inform users about potential hazards and guide safe use. Unsafe products are unsustainable. Ultimately, everything is toxic given a high enough dose. Even salt can kill both people and fish if the dose is sufficient. So ensuring safety does not mean avoiding hazards of any kind, it simply means ensuring exposure does not exceed safe levels.
Understanding this difference between risk and hazard, and that it’s the dose (how much, how long etc) that determines whether a hazard (toxicity etc) will translate into a real risk of harm, is central to a sound, science-based approach to product safety.
Rigorous, scientific risk assessment is at the core of EU and UK legislation such as REACH that is designed to ensure that products will be safe for people and the environment when used and disposed of as directed. Ensuring user instructions and procedures are followed is a critical responsibility of the purchaser and user.
For more on ingredients, on how they are risk assessed, and how good ingredient selection and formulation makes cleaning more sustainable, click here.
Hazard labels don’t mean unsustainable
Paradoxically, making cleaning products more concentrated to make them more sustainable can sometimes lead to them being assigned a higher hazard rating, for example, corrosive instead of irritant, or ‘toxic’ instead of ‘harmful’. Since more concentrated products are diluted more to give just the same use concentration, neither people nor the environment are exposed to any greater hazard from the use solution. Sometimes, an increased hazard classification, and accompanying warning labels, can arise from quite a modest increase in concentration, when the properties of the product hardly change at all. This is because hazard classifications are often arrived at by calculations on ingredient concentrations. The rules that govern these calculations work with concentration bands so a small increase in concentration of an ingredient can move the hazard rating from one band to another. Highly concentrated products may be somewhat more hazardous to handle than their standard equivalent, but these are generally used with automated dosing systems (to avoid waste) and are packaged to minimize operator exposure. So hazard labels aren’t an indication that a product is less sustainable – sometimes it can be the opposite. Purchasing policies should not take hazard labels out of context of the job the product is used for, and the way that it’s used.