Sustainable cleaning - when less is more

26th of October 2011
Sustainable cleaning - when less is more
Sustainable cleaning - when less is more

Less water, less energy and fewer chemicals are three of the major planks of sustainable cleaning. But can the three co-exist or is a compromise always required? Ann Laffeaty finds out.

Companies that make sustainability claims about their products or services usually cite one or more factors that contribute to their environmentally-friendliness.

Some companies may point out that their product offers all-important energy savings. Some may stress that their system uses less water than those of their rivals, while others claim that their product minimises or eliminates the need for chemical use.

But which of the three is most important in a sustainable cleaning system? And can any product or system reduce the consumption of energy, water and chemicals at the same time?

According to Bio-Productions managing director Mike James this is a tough ask. “For example, microfibre cloths are a prime example of a product that can reduce water, energy and chemical use – but you need to launder microfibre cloths and this uses energy,” he said.

James claims that the company’s own Toss Blocks for urinals are an example of a water-saving system. The blocks use bacterial cultures to clean and deodorise urinal traps and pipes, and a typical urinal is claimed to only need to be flushed around three times a day when using Toss Blocks.

No water shortage

However, not all European customers are impressed by such product benefits, according to James. “Unlike other parts of the world we don’t have a critical water shortage in Europe,” he said.  “Although our Toss Blocks offer water savings this is not at the forefront of customers’ minds - until you tell them about the cost benefits associated with saving water.

“The same applies to energy savings. Most people just want the job done – and they want it done efficiently - because the most expensive component of a cleaning system is labour.”

However the company claims its customers can reduce their waster, energy and chemical use by using a combination of its products. In fact Bio-Productions recently helped a major public facility to do just that, says James.

“The facility had thousands of people using the urinals every day and had a problem with smelly toilets,” he said. “They used a variety of bathroom products including stain removers and general cleaners, but we replaced them all with just three of our own products: Toss Blocks, Blu-Away and Citraclean.

“By using Toss Blocks they have saved around 100,000 litres of water a year and by rationalising their products they now use fewer chemicals. And the knock-on effect is that they now also need fewer deliveries, too. In fact we estimate that they are saving approximately 100 truck miles a year.”

Kärcher’s environmental matters public relations officer Annette Ostertag says it is possible to combine all three sustainability benefits into one product or system. “However, the emphasis may differ depending on the application or product,” she said. “In a hot water pressure washer for instance, along with reducing water, detergent and power consumption, it is also important to cut fuel oil consumption whereas in a scrubber dryer this is not a consideration.”

Ostertag agrees that reducing energy, water and use of detergents are all key considerations in any sustainable cleaning system. “However, such savings must be achieved without compromising on cleaning performance,” she adds. “Only if a machine performs very well will the user save time on cleaning – and this will result in water, energy and cleaning agent savings.”

She says it is hard to determine which of the three factors is most important, adding that Kärcher takes a holistic approach to sustainability. “All three are equally important for us, but in addition we set great store by efficiency and environmental protection throughout all of our processes, from development and the choice of materials to production and sales.”

Reduced motor power

Kärcher’s latest scrubber dryers and hot water high pressure cleaners have an eco!efficiency setting with preset functions that can be used to perform most cleaning tasks with reduced motor power. “Automatic floor cleaners, for example, operate very quietly in eco!efficiency mode at medium speed with a low water intake and suction power and reduced brush contact pressure,” said Ostertag. “The eco!efficiency setting also enables our pressure washers to remove 80 per cent of dirt at 60°C with considerably lower fuel consumption.”

Meanwhile the company’s dosing system can help reduce detergent use, she says. “Dosing detergent as and when it is required reduces consumption, saves money and rules out operating errors caused by an excess of detergent,” claims Ostertag. “Kärcher’s DOSE system adds a precise dose of detergent while the machine is in operation.”

According to Nilfisk-Advance’s group corporate social responsibility manager Ulla Riber: “It takes energy, water and detergent to deliver the highest standards of effective cleaning. None of these three can be left out.” She agrees reducing the use of energy, water and chemicals are all key elements in any sustainable cleaning system – but adds that reducing waste is an important fourth.

“We are determined to take a leading position in the development of new products that provide equal or enhanced cleaning efficiency while using less energy, less water and less detergent,” she said. “It is our experience that it is possible to work with all three sustainability benefits while maintaining - or even improving on - cleaning efficiency.”

She claims that the company’s Ecoflex system combines effective cleaning with environmentally-sustainable cleaning methods. Ecoflex allows the operator to switch between chemical-free, water-only cleaning while also varying the degree of detergent use. “Ecoflex reduces water consumption by 50 per cent and the need for detergents by between 35 and 100 per cent,” said Riber. “Also, floors are cleaned in one pass which saves both time and energy.”

If looked at from a resource and global warming perspective, energy savings should be a key goal according to SCA Hygiene Products’ global environment and product safety director Susan Iliefski-Janols.

“However, reducing chemical use is important from an occupational safety and eco-toxicology point of view,” she adds. “Saving water is also becoming increasingly important, but this is a local issue. For instance, water scarcity is a problem in some countries in Africa but not in Sweden.”

She says SCA assesses the life cycle of its products and continuously works towards increasing the sustainability of its operations. “SCA has goals for water and energy reduction, while procedures in the use of chemicals are integrated into our mills,” she said. “Meanwhile, our global supplier standard includes demands for quality, chemicals and product safety as well as environmental demands and compliance with our Code of Conduct.”

Use resources smartly

While agreeing that saving water, energy and reducing chemical use are all-important planks in any sustainable system, she adds that it is also crucial to use resources in a smart and efficient way.

“For example we use sustainable virgin fibres from responsibly-managed forests for our products, while our compressed packaging is designed to reduce waste,” she said. “We also design our products to control consumption. For instance, our Tork interfold napkin dispensers are designed to allow only one napkin to be taken out at a time which reduces waste and cost in use.”

Tennant’s marketing communications manager Agnes Knapen agrees that the importance of reducing use of water, energy and chemicals depends largely on the specific environment.
“One site might be under water restrictions which will mean the reduction of water will be particularly valued, while another might have a vulnerable population where it will be important to reduce the use of conventional cleaning chemicals,” she explained.

According to Knapen, a recent breakthrough product launched by Orbio Technologies - a Tennant Company Group - reduces environmental impact across the entire life cycle of its product. The Orbio 5000-Sc uses Orbio Split Stream technology to electrically restructure tap water and salt to create an environmentally-friendly cleaning solution.

“This can be dispensed for use in a variety of cleaning tools such as spray bottles, carpet extractors and scrubber dryers,” she said. “It can effectively replace many daily-use conventional cleaning chemicals including those used in scrubber dryers and pre-spray chemicals used with carpet extraction, plus spray-and-wipe cleaners such as those used with glass, stainless steel, and all-purpose cleaners.”

As for products that can save water, energy and chemical use at the same time, she says Tennant’s ec-H2O technology is a prime example. “By using ec-H2O, water consumption is decreased by up to 70 per cent over conventional scrubber dryers,” she said.

“Because the ec-H2O system uses plain tap water, the energy used in the production, packaging, shipping, storing and disposing of conventional packaged floor cleaners chemicals is greatly reduced. And by reducing or eliminating the use of conventional concentrated floor cleaners, potential contact with these chemicals is also reduced or eliminated.”

So it seems that there are new technologies out there designed to simultaneously reduce the use of water, energy and chemicals during the cleaning process. But whether they are using new solutions or tried and tested ones, companies are demonstrating that it is possible to make reductions in all three areas simply by looking at the bigger picture and making small changes wherever possible. And by doing so these companies claim to be increasing the sustainability of their set-up.


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