Creating a clean and hygienic environment for pupils and staff should be a priority for schools. It helps to provide a pleasant and safe place to learn and work. At the same time, schools are increasingly looking to employ more sustainable processes as part of their commitment to the environment and to help improve efficiency and reduce costs. This is particularly important for schools working towards Eco-Schools awards. The challenge is to understand the options available and make decisions that deliver on these objectives.
The traditional image of the school cleaner with a mop and bucket is familiar. But modern equipment and techniques have changed this vital role beyond recognition. There are many ways schools can embrace greater sustainability across their cleaning operations. This can include switching to new products and ways of working that increase efficiency, use fewer natural resources, eliminate waste, reduce water and energy consumption, and involve less packaging.
Below, we outline some of the key ways that schools can improve their sustainability credentials when it comes to cleaning.
There is a huge choice of cleaning products on the market. The chemical formulation of these products is an important sustainability consideration. For example, many products are promoted as “being made from natural ingredients” but this can be misleading. At a basic level, simply containing a natural ingredient is no assurance that a product is effective, safe or indeed sustainable. For example, some cleaning products contain “lemon juice” as their active ingredient. Perfectly natural, one might think, but the reality is that these products often use citric acid (the main chemical in lemon juice) that is a by-product of some other industrial process. Besides, other constituents of the product’s formulation could be basic industrial chemicals with no sustainability benefit. Using real lemons may be no better because this could require large areas of agricultural land owned by big companies being used to grow trees that provide little or no benefit to the local population. The drive for raw materials can also mean chopping down forests that have provided an eco-system for local flora and fauna for millennia.
Fortunately, there are products on the market that are manufactured completely using plant-based by-products of food production processes that would otherwise be wasted. Products falling in to this category will most likely comply with recognised sustainability standards such as the EU Ecolabel, the Nordic Ecolabel or the AISE Chartermark.
Whatever product is chosen, the next consideration is how it is packaged. All cleaning products are essentially a combination of chemicals. In many cases, these are produced as “ready to use” products where the basic formulation is diluted at the factory before being put into spray bottles or other packs. While this is convenient for the end user it makes little sense from a sustainability perspective when water is usually readily available at the point of use.
The far better option is to supply the product as an ultra-concentrate containing just the active formulation. Water is added at the point-of-use with special dosing or dilution control equipment. There are considerable sustainability benefits in this approach. One pack replaces the hundreds of ready-to-use or bulk chemical bottles required to do the same amount of cleaning. This means lower transport, handling and storage burdens and costs across the supply chain. Packaging consumption, and waste, is also significantly reduced. Even better if that packaging is itself recyclable. Dosing and dilution systems promote sustainability because they ensure accurate and consistent preparation of solutions that produce better results with no wastage. They also reduce the risk of users coming into contract with undiluted products.
Innovative formulations also help promote sustainable cleaning. There is a trend to using multipurpose products because these simplify processes and reduce training and other implementation costs as well as supply chain burdens.
Schools who look after a lot of fabrics might have an in-house laundry. This can use a lot of water and energy so it makes sense to look for alternative processes. Washing fabrics at lower temperatures generally saves energy, reduces water consumption and can prolong the life of linen and garments. Products are now available with stain removers and disinfectants effective at temperatures as low as 40oC, leading to significant savings over conventional high-temperature detergents.
Another innovative approach is to use cleaner-disinfectants with Accelerated Hydrogen Peroxide as the active ingredient rather than traditional “quat” or chlorine-based formulations. The hydrogen peroxide breaks down to water and oxygen shortly after use and these products give off none of the unpleasant fumes associated with traditional products which makes them safer to use when people are present. They can also be used on a wider range of hard surfaces, and even fabrics, than conventional alternatives.
Hard floors are often cleaned in larger schools using a machine called a scrubber drier. This applies a cleaning solution to the floor, agitates it with a rotating or reciprocating scrubbing action and then removes it to leave the floor clean and dry. The choice of machine can be bewildering but the best produce better results, are highly efficient and more sustainable that using a mop or bucket.
The most advanced machines always use the right amount of water and product whatever their moving speed. Some are also accredited by independent organisations such as the Water Technology List, showing they have been assessed for sustainable performance. These machines use pads made from a variety of materials for specific floor types, some being manufactured from recycled and/or recyclable materials.
It is clear that there is a lot more to modern cleaning than the old mop and bucket and that this seemingly mundane daily process can contribute to a school’s sustainability objectives. In addition to making a positive statement about the school’s approach to sustainability many of the issues that inform the decision making process can also be introduced into the classroom to engage pupils with real-world issues in a meaningful way.
Eco-Schools believes a healthy, happy school can be achieved through sustainability. Whilst it does not enforce a procurement policy on schools, it does encourage them to look at their internal processes and products to ensure that the ethos of an environmentally friendly school goes beyond what is taught in the classroom.
When looking at alternative cleaning solutions, there is a great opportunity to engage pupils in the discussion. Eco-Schools is based around nine environmental topics, giving children and young people a wide range of learning. To gain an internationally recognised Green Flag, schools should focus on these topics and allow children to develop projects and activities around them.
Sustainable cleaning directly links to several Eco-Schools topics, notably Water, Healthy Living and Waste – with other links to Energy and School Grounds. If a school decides to switch to more sustainable cleaning methods, it could, for example, invite the caretaker to attend Eco-Committee meetings to update the students on the improvements under the core topics and allow the committee members to feedback. This would allow the children to feel even more a part of the school’s management and learn about how changes to processes and products can have a positive impact.
Eco-Schools awards also require schools to build sustainability in to the curriculum and again, how a school is kept healthy and germ-free can be easily incorporated into lessons from biology through to design and technology.