July 2011 Issue

Clean Green — Experts Say Switching to Safer Products Can Benefit People and the Environment
By Lindsey Getz
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 13 No. 7 P. 16

Many of today’s conventional cleaning products are packed with chemicals that, according to numerous experts, may pose a risk not only to the environment but also to human health. Yet such products have become household names. People have grown up with these cleaners stashed under the sink or in a cleaning cupboard, and their familiarity can make switching to new products difficult.

But the dietitians interviewed for this article believe that incorporating greener cleaning products and techniques that are effective without posing potentially harmful side effects is an important consideration not only for consumers in the home but also for dietitians and other professionals in the foodservice arena. Estimates from sources such as Discovery Channel’s PlanetGreen.com indicate that 5 billion pounds of chemicals are used in the institutional cleaning industry each year.

If your foodservice kitchen isn’t cleaning green, you may want to consider advocating for this change to benefit the health of both people and the environment.

Why Go Green?
Whether in the foodservice department at schools, hotels, hospitals, or other healthcare settings, making the switch to green cleaning has the potential to positively impact many people. “One of the important reasons to switch is that environmental toxins and chemicals used in cleaning products wind up impacting what our food touches, what’s on our hands, and even what’s in our air,” says Stacia Clinton, RD, LDN, of Health Care Without Harm, a global nonprofit organization that is working toward more ecologically sound and healthful alternatives to healthcare practices.

The fact that these cleaning products may come in contact with food makes it increasingly important to ensure the chemicals being used in any foodservice department are safe.

“Being exposed to these [chemicals] can affect our health,” says Clinton, who also works closely with Practice Greenhealth, a for-profit agency that works with hospitals to develop environmentally sound practices, including the use of safer chemicals. “[At Health Care Without Harm] we have a report that shows asthma is strongly linked to the types of chemicals used in these healthcare settings. It’s important to look at the alternatives.”

While it would seem that switching to green products is a no-brainer, making the change is not necessarily simple. One of the key difficulties in switching to greener products in foodservice is that there are often strict protocols to follow. It’s much easier for consumers to employ green cleaning habits at home where there aren’t so many rules and regulations.

“It’s just not acceptable to use vinegar or lemon to clean with in foodservice,” says Cindy Thorne, MS, RD, CD, director of dining services for a long-term care and rehab facility. “People may have seen their grandmother do this, but it’s just not a standard of practice in foodservice.”

Although she says there are standards to uphold and homemade solutions using natural products such as baking soda won’t cut it, Thorne is a big advocate of greener cleaning. She says the biggest reason to consider using greener and safer cleaning products is health related.

In addition to her foodservice position, for 12 years Thorne has been a distributor with Shaklee Corporation, a company that carries numerous green products, including green cleaners. “Yes, going green is good for the environment, but I say look at people’s lungs!” she says. “The increase in asthma alone is a reason to put more thought into what kinds of products you’re using to clean. In foodservice, it’s a matter of safety for the employees. Chlorine bleach may be a great germicidal, but it’s dangerous, too. People’s eyes may start tearing just from using it. In foodservice departments, you could be talking about a workers’ comp claim. So there’s a big health factor to consider. While it’s a great reason, there’s definitely more to it than just going green for the environment.”

Making the Change
Alongside the shift toward greener living, many of the big-name companies that produce traditional household cleaning products are introducing greener options. “Regular industry vendors are reformulating their existing chemicals,” says Clinton. “They’re looking for greener options, too.”

But Clinton says there are innovative techniques being employed in the foodservice industry. Electrolyzed water, for example, is being used as an antibacterial in place of chemicals. What’s been called “miracle water” in the media is actually a simple mixture of salt and water whose ions have been scrambled with an electric current, resulting in what’s called electrolyzed water. This water has been used for years in Japan but is just catching on in the United States.

“Infection control nurses were definitely freaked out by the idea [of using electrolyzed water] at first,” admits Clinton. “But it has the same antibacterial properties as other cleaners. Foodservice departments can just put it into bottles and use it like any other cleaner. It’s been used to spray cutting boards, and tests have shown the same low-level bacterial quality as cleaning with a traditional cleaner.”

The machine used to electrolyze water isn’t cheap, and Clinton says it may require periodic maintenance to ensure it’s working properly. But she believes the savings over time can be much greater than buying traditional cleaners. In addition, the value of replacing potentially harmful chemicals with a safe water-based solution may be worth much more than the physical price tag.

But there are some considerations beyond the cleaning product itself. Thorne says foodservice professionals need to consider the type of material they’re using to do the scrubbing. “You can’t use looped towels in foodservice,” she says. “While taking leftover bath towels and reusing them as rags is a good idea for the environment, looped towels have areas for bacteria to harbor. You need to use nonlooped microfiber cloths or rags to make sure you’re not spreading bacteria around.”

To get their organization started with greener cleaning, foodservice personnel should have a more open dialogue about the types of products and chemicals being used in their facility. Clinton says education is also vital.

“If you’re trying to go green, make sure the staff knows they can’t use just anything when it comes to cleaning products,” she says. “I also recommend having a green team in place to spearhead the effort. A lot of times it’s just a matter of educating people on what’s out there and making them more comfortable with trying something new. Many times it’s just misinformation that’s keeping departments from making the switch, and that’s something that can be easily changed by a dedicated green team who can answer questions.”

— Lindsey Getz is a freelance writer based in Royersford, Pa.