What Are Sustainable Products?
Presidential Executive Order 13101 defines sustainable products as:
“products that reduce the health and environmental impacts compared to similar products and services used for the same purpose”
This definition is very broad and quite nonspecific as it relates to the formulating of chemical products. The vague nature of what makes a sustainable cleaning product has contributed to confusion in our industry as well as some ethically questionable marketing tactics.
Below are some generally agreed upon qualities that a sustainable chemical product should have and why these attributes are important.
SUSTAINABLE PRODUCTS MEET PERFORMANCE STANDARDS:
Product performance is extremely important. If a sustainable product does not work as well as its non-sustainable counterpart then the product provides no real value to an end user. To use a product which does not meet a generally accepted performance standard may result in the use of more product to clean or maintain a facility. This overuse can be just as potentially harmful to humans and the environment as using a lesser amount of an effective non-sustainable product.
SUSTAINABLE PRODUCTS CONTAIN INGREDIENTS THAT ARE READILY BIODEGRADABLE:
This means that the product contains ingredients that can be easily broken down by microbial (bacterial) action after the product has been used and disposed of. The rate at which they break down is important. If ingredients biodegrade slowly or incompletely, they can threaten our environment. A general rule of thumb (although there are exceptions) is that surfactants made from petroleum fatty acids degrade slowly. Those derived from vegetable oil fatty acids break down more quickly.
SUSTAINABLE PRODUCTS ARE NON-TOXIC TO HUMANS AND AQUATIC LIFE:
Non-toxic means that the product is not injurious to humans or aquatic life when used for its intended purpose and under normal concentrations. To be labeled as non-toxic to humans and aquatic life, the product must meet specific Federal requirements.
SUSTAINABLE PRODUCTS DO NOT CONTRIBUTE TO EUTROPHICATION:
Phosphates have traditionally been used to soften water and to increase the cleaning power of surfactants. Phosphates encourage plant growth and algal blooms, which can lead to oxygen depletion (eutrophication) in bodies of water and ultimately to the death of aquatic life. Sustainable cleaning products, as used, should contain less than 0.5% by weight of total phosphorous.
SUSTAINABLE PRODUCTS ARE CONCENTRATED:
The most common ingredient (up to 90%) of general-purpose cleaners is water. When this excess water is shipped, energy and packaging is wasted and more solid waste is created for our landfills. Using a concentrated product cuts down on packaging waste and fuel costs associated with transport.
SUSTAINABLE PRODUCTS HAVE MINIMAL VOC’S (VOLATILE ORGANIC COMPOUNDS):
VOC’s are present in many petroleum-based solvents and are known to contribute to ground-level ozone and photochemical smog. Smog can cause health problems, especially for those with respiratory ailments. These solvents when inhaled or absorbed through the skin can have serious health effects on the liver, kidneys, respiratory system, and central nervous system. Some VOC’s are also known or suspected carcinogens.
SUSTAINABLE PRODUCTS ARE NOT CORROSIVE TO SKIN OR EYES:
Although some sustainable products are labeled as corrosive in their concentrated form the product should not be corrosive to skin or eyes when diluted for proper use. Sustainable products that are corrosive concentrates should be part of a dispensing system, which prevents or minimizes contact with the concentrate and allows for easy and accurate dilution into appropriate end use containers.
SUSTAINABLE PRODUCTS ARE NOT SKIN SENSITIZERS:
Allergic contact dermatitis is a common skin condition in maintenance staff and occurs when a chemical substance enters the skin and causes the immune system to become sensitized. On subsequent exposures the immune system responds and causes a dermal or skin reaction. As a person becomes more highly sensitized to the substance the reaction may appear sooner, be more severe and can cause serious health problems such as anaphylactic shock in rare cases.
Sustainable product formulation excludes known skin sensitizers whenever possible. If a known skin sensitizer is in a formulation it should be at a low enough concentration so as not to cause an allergic reaction.
SUSTAINABLE PRODUCTS DO NOT CONTAIN ENDOCRINE DISRUPTORS:
Endocrine disruptors are chemicals and naturally occurring materials that when introduced into humans and animals cause interference with hormone release and transport within the body. Possible effects of endocrine disruptors include birth defects, neurological disorders, immunologic disorders, certain cancers and development, behavior and mental disorders.
The most commonly encountered endocrine disruptors in cleaning products are ethoxylated surfactants most notably nonylphenol ethoxylate (NPE) and alkylphenol ethoxylate (APE). Another common group of endocrine disruptors are phthalates, which are widely used in floor finishes as a plasticizer.
SUSTAINABLE PRODUCTS ARE PACKAGED IN RECYCLABLE CONTAINERS:
Bulk containers should be constructed of HDPE (high density polyethylene) or PET (polyethylene terephthalate), which are the two most recycled plastics. Shipping containers should be constructed from recycled/recyclable cardboard boxes. Avoid cleaners in bottles made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or polypropylene (PP) because these products are not as easily recycled as other packaging.
Pressurized aerosol cans if punctured, can produce an uncontrolled spray, and can lead to dangerous chemical releases, putting sanitation workers at risk. Propellants in the can (such as propane and butane) are flammable and often contribute to the amount of VOC’s in our atmosphere. Aerosol cans are seldom recycled.
SUSTAINABLE PRODUCTS CONTAIN NO CHLORINE BLEACH:
Many products use sodium hypochlorite (chlorine bleach) to whiten, disinfect, deodorize and to remove stains. But in wastewater, chlorine containing bleaching agents can react with other chemicals to form chlorinated organic compounds, which can be toxic and carcinogenic. A preferable substitute for chlorine bleach is sodium per-carbonate.
SUSTAINABLE PRODUCTS AVOID PETROLEUM-BASED SOLVENTS, GLYCOL ETHERS, PHENOLIC COMPOUNDS AND SURFACTANTS WHENEVER POSSIBLE:
Petroleum-based solvents made from non-renewable resources are extremely flammable and are toxic upon inhalation. Glycol ethers (e.g., ethylene glycol, butoxy ethanol) are also commonly used, especially in spray cleaners. These are manufactured through petrochemical processes and many are toxic.
Phenolic compounds are highly volatile, highly toxic, corrosive, suspected of causing cancer in humans and can be harmful upon inhalation or absorption through the skin or eyes. Sometimes phenol is also used as a germ killer in cleaners.
Petroleum-derived surfactants are associated with more serious environmental impacts than those made from vegetable oils. While many of the commonly used surfactants are relatively non-toxic to humans, they may be based on chemicals that are toxic, such as ethoxylated surfactants based upon ethylene oxide, an animal carcinogen.
A common natural solvent is d-limonene, which is created from citrus peels, but it can also be fairly irritating. Sometimes citrus-based solvents will contain petroleum distillates as well, so be careful when choosing these types of products. D-limonene is preferable since it is an agricultural byproduct and is considered a renewable resource.
SUSTAINABLE PRODUCTS CAN USE SAFE DYES AND FRAGRANCES:
Sustainable products can contain dye and/or fragrance. When used in amounts greater than 0.01% by weight of a formula dyes and fragrances should meet all of the requirements listed in this section.
SELLING SUSTAINABLE PRODUCTS
Most traditional cleaning products sold today do a good job at their intended purpose. There is not much room for improvement in cleaning efficacy for reputable, nationally branded and distributed cleaning products. However, it is in that environment that we must advance the industry and safer products are the next available step.
Sustainable cleaning products are the next generation of cleaners. This next level of performance is possible because of many technological advances in raw material research and formulation. Scientific research has led to products that clean just as well as traditionally formulated products by using advanced chemical formulations, which reduce negative impacts on people and the environment.
The bottom line is that all customers, businesses and employees will benefit from a safer healthier workplace and reduced impact on our air, water and earth from cleaning products. Advanced technology cleaning products provide all those benefits and clean spaces just as effectively as traditional products. Maintaining a clean, healthy workplace while reducing potential negative impact on cleaning staff and occupants is a great value proposition.
A few major benefits of sustainable cleaning products:
- Provide clean facilities
- Improve indoor air quality
- Reduce exposure to potentially harmful products
- Reduce illness in workplace
- Reduce worker compensation claims
- Reduce negative impacts on water and air quality
- Reduce waste placed in landfills
View Green Seal™ Certified Products which promote a more sustainable environment
These products meet Green Seal™ Standard GS-40 based on effective performance and protective limits on VOCs and human & environmental toxicity. GreenSeal.org
View Safer Choice Products
EPA/Safer Choice recognition does not constitute endorsement of this product. The Safer Choice label signifies that the product’s formula, as Fuller Commercial Products has represented it to the EPA, contains ingredients with more positive human health and environmental characteristics than conventional products of the same type. EPA/Safer Choice relies solely on Fuller Commercial Products, its integrity and good faith, for information on the product’s composition, ingredients and attributes. EPA/Safer Choice has not independently identified, that is, via chemical analysis, the ingredients in the product formula, nor evaluated any of Fuller Commercial Products non-ingredient claims. EPA/Safer Choice provides its evaluation only as to the product’s human health and environmental characteristics, as specified in the Safer Choice Standard and based on currently available information and scientific understanding.