Sustainable cleaning Step 1 – choosing cleaning tools
Professional cleaning uses a wide range of cleaning tools of varying degrees of sophistication, from mops and buckets to microfiber cloths. Some are reusable, some disposable, such as paper towels and wipes.
The principles of assessing and comparing life cycle impacts still applies but, especially where tools are used manually, it’s very important in getting a true perspective on sustainability to take all three pillars into account, not just the environmental pillar. Some cleaning tools such as large Kentucky mops can be arduous to use compared to a more lightweight system, and this needs to be factored into the equation.
It’s very much easier to compare the sustainability of two similar items, say two kinds of paper towels, than two different approaches. When comparing similar items, the nature of the life-cycle impacts will be similar, but potentially differ in magnitude, and sometimes one kind can be shown to be clearly preferable. But when the formats are very different – say a paper towel vs a reusable cloth – the impacts can be of very different kinds. Disposable paper towels would tend to show higher resource consumption and solid waste generation, whereas the reusable cloths may have significant impacts when the dirty cloths are cleaned ready for reuse, consuming detergent and energy, especially if hot water is used. Often the conclusion depends on the assessment of the relative importance of those impacts – for example how much increased energy consumption is equivalent to how much extra solid waste generation.
It’s also very important to consider the parameters of the cleaning operations in which the tools are to be used. For example, in healthcare applications where avoiding cross-contamination is critically important, disposables may be clearly preferable. Similarly, laundering and re-using cloths may be a small incremental impact where the facilities are readily available. Microfiber cloths need laundering, but this uses only a small fraction of the amount of detergent that would normally be used with conventional cloths.
Clearly, the considerations in choosing cleaning tools are complex, and conclusions often uncertain where they hinge on relative importance of different impacts. Quite commonly, therefore, there is no clear winner, and the practicalities, social and economic impacts become the deciding factors. But a common result of detailed LCA comparisons of different product formats is an improved appreciation of the critical factors of each, which gives rise to ideas about how the sustainability of each approach can be improved. Changing one approach for another can involve significant impacts including waste, and should only be undertaken on sustainability grounds when the overall life cycle improvement is clearly established.