October 28, 2019: Greening Your Purchase of Cleaning Products

Greening Your Purchase of Cleaning Products: A Guide For Federal Purchasers

The US EPA has developed these purchasing guides to help government purchasers consider environmental factors in purchasing decisions.


Cleaning products are necessary for maintaining attractive and healthful conditions in the home and workplace. In addition to the obvious aesthetic benefits of cleaning, the removal of dust, allergens, and infectious agents is crucial to maintaining a healthful indoor environment. But cleaning products can present several health and environmental concerns. They may contain chemicals associated with eye, skin, or respiratory irritation, or other human health issues. Additionally, the concentrated forms of some commercial cleaning products are classified as hazardous, creating potential handling, storage, and disposal issues for users. Reducing the human health and environmental concerns is an important incentive for implementing an EPP cleaning products program. Many of the recommendations in the guide are based on the fundamental pollution prevention principles of reducing the quantity and hazards of materials used.

The purpose of the guide is to provide practical information that will assist federal purchasers in making purchasing decisions. The guide is not a risk assessment document nor is it intended to substitute for Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), labels, or similar documents that provide information on proper storage, handling, use, and disposal. More comprehensive information on cleaning processes and practices is available from a variety of sources, a number of which are listed in the “Contacts and Resources” section of the guide.

Why Green Your Cleaning Products?

Environmental and Health Concerns

NOTE: The following discussion primarily addresses hazards associated with cleaning product ingredients. The actual risks from these chemicals at typical exposure levels are often uncertain, and in many cases are probably low. Regardless of the expected risk levels, however, reducing the intrinsic hazard of a product is a desirable pollution prevention objective as part of decisions that also take into account other important product attributes.

  • Cleaning products are released to the environment during normal use through evaporation of volatile components and rinsing down the drain of residual product from cleaned surfaces, sponges, etc. Janitorial staff and others who perform cleaning can be exposed to concentrated cleaning products. However, proper training and use of a Chemical Management System (a set of formal procedures to ensure proper storage, handling, and use) can greatly minimize or prevent exposure to concentrated cleaning product during handling and use.
  • Certain ingredients in cleaning products can present hazard concerns to exposed populations (e.g., skin and eye irritation in workers) or toxicity to aquatic species in waters receiving inadequately treated wastes (note that standard sewage treatment effectively reduces or removes most cleaning product constituents). For example, alkylphenol ethoxylates, a common surfactant ingredient in cleaners, have been shown in laboratory studies to function as an “endocrine disrupter,” causing adverse reproductive effects of the types seen in wildlife exposed to polluted waters.
  • Ingredients containing phosphorus or nitrogen can contribute to nutrient-loading in water bodies, leading to adverse effects on water quality. These contributions, however, are typically small compared to other point and non-point sources.
  • Volatile organic compounds (VOC) in cleaning products can affect indoor air quality and also contribute to smog formation in outdoor air.

(Sources: Choose Green Report on General Purpose Cleaners, Green Seal, March 1998; Green Seal Standard and Environmental Evaluation for General-Purpose, Bathroom, and Glass Cleaners Used for Industrial and Institutional Purposes, October 2000; Hormonally Active Agents in the Environment, National Research Council, National Academy Press, 1999)

Magnitude of Potential Exposure

  • The cleaning industry employs about 2.8 million potentially exposed janitors. In addition to these professional janitorial staff, who can be assumed to use cleaning products daily, many other building occupants perform light cleaning on a routine or occasional basis, e.g. dusting, wiping off desks and counters, etc. All building occupants are potentially exposed to the volatile components of cleaning products.
  • Data from Washington State show that about 6 percent of janitors experience a job-related injury from chemical exposure to cleaning products every year.

(Sources: Green Seal Standard and Environmental Evaluation for General-Purpose, Bathroom, and Glass Cleaners Used for Industrial and Institutional Purposes, October 2000; Greening the Janitorial Business- How to Select and Use Safe Janitorial Chemicals, Workshop for NISH, US Dept. of Interior, November 2001)

Benefits of Buying Green

  • Choosing less hazardous products that have positive environmental attributes (e.g., biodegradability, low toxicity, low volatile organic compound (VOC) content, reduced packaging, low life cycle energy use) and taking steps to reduce exposure can minimize harmful impacts to custodial workers and building occupants, improve indoor air quality, and reduce water and ambient air pollution while also ensuring the effectiveness of cleaning in removing biological and other contaminants from the building’s interior.
  • Buying cleaners in concentrates with appropriate handling safeguards, and reusable, reduced, or recyclable packaging, reduces packaging waste and transportation energy.
  • Buying less hazardous cleaners may reduce costs when it comes time to properly dispose of any leftover cleaners.

What Can You Do?

When purchasing cleaning products, the overall best value takes into account performance, price, availability, regulatory requirements, and environmental impact. Purchasers should examine as many relevant product attributes as possible, recognizing that tradeoffs are inevitable. For example, one product may be made with renewable resources (a desirable characteristic), while another product has a lower VOC content (also a desirable characteristic).

Purchasers should be especially careful in interpreting vague or generic claims such as “environmentally friendly,” “eco safe,” etc. Purchasers should ask vendors and manufacturers offering green cleaning products to clearly and specifically define their green claims. Guidance on the use and interpretation of environmental marketing claims is available from the Federal Trade Commission.

In addition, purchasers should ask manufacturers if they have conducted life cycle studies on their products. In the absence of comprehensive life cycle data, purchasers must simply make the best decision possible with the information available. Purchasers have to make a decision about the overall best value, taking into account their own organization’s policies and priorities.

So how can you make an informed purchasing decision? Consider this list of attributes, in addition to price and performance, when selecting environmentally preferable cleaning products. Many organizations incorporate some of these attributes into their cleaning service contract specifications.

Product Content and Use

  • Minimal presence of or exposure to potentially harmful chemicals, such as:
    • Corrosive or strongly irritating substances.
    • Substances classified as known or likely human carcinogens or reproductive toxicants by authorities such as the National Toxicology Program, the U.S. EPA, the International Agency for Research on Cancer or the State of California.
    • Ozone-depleting compounds as listed in Clean Air Act regulations.
    • Regulated hazardous materials (e.g. products classified as hazardous waste; products that trigger OSHA hazard communication requirements).
  • Use of renewable resources, such as biobased solvents from citrus, seed, vegetable, and pine oils.
  • Low VOC content.
  • Biodegradable by standard methods and definitions, e.g. ready biodegradability as defined by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)EXIT “Ready biodegradability” is a definition meant to ensure that a material degrades relatively quickly in an aquatic aerobic environment.
  • Low toxicity in aquatic species such as fish or aquatic invertebrates, e.g. LC50 or EC50 > 10 mg/L (chronic) reported on MSDS or other product literature.
  • Low flammability, e.g. flash point > 200 degrees F.
  • Designed for use in cold water in order to conserve energy.
  • Limit use of disinfectants to areas where people are likely to come into contact with contaminated surfaces (e.g., bathroom fixtures, doorknobs, other high-touch surfaces). Many general purpose cleaning tasks do not typically require the use of disinfectants (e.g., walls, floors, other surfaces with minimal hand contact).
  • Conduct training on proper use of products.

Product Packaging and Shipping

  • Concentrated formulas with appropriate handling safeguards.
  • Efficient packaging (e.g., light weight, reduced volume).
  • Recyclable packaging.
  • Recycled-content packaging.
  • Refillable bottles.
  • Pump sprays rather than aerosols.
  • Packaging and dilution systems designed to reduce exposure to the product.
  • Products shipped in bulk.
  • Clear labeling and information on use and disposal.

Corporate Environmental Performance

  • Does the company have a formal environmental management system? (e.g., steps to reduce waste and emissions, efficient use of energy and materials, use of alternative fuels or renewable energy)
  • Does the company have International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 14001 certification?
  • Does the company have a formal partnership with Safer Choice?