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Are green chemicals really green?

While there is a definite clamour for green products, can procurement heads and FM personnel rely on claims of environment friendliness? Are green-certified products entirely safe to use? Mrigank Warrier, Associate Editor, Clean India Journal digs deeper into the subject.

Beware of greenwashing

While working on this story, I came across the concept of ‘greenwashing’. This is the practice of using vague labels or generic terms like ‘environmentally friendly’, ‘eco safe’ or simply, ‘green’, to market a cleaning chemical, that may sound genuine but are not necessarily 100% true.

Let me explain. Every certifying body across the world has more or less similar parameters to assess the eco-friendliness of a chemical. These parameters include (but are not limited to):

  • Absence of corrosive, strongly irritating, carcinogenic, ozone-depleting or hazardous substances
  • Use of renewable resources
  • Does not affect Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD) of water
  • Biodegradability by standard methods and definitions
  • Low flammability
  • Low Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) content

But what about pH?

pH matters

Most cleaning agents are either acidic or alkaline. Alkaline solutions are better at cutting through dirt, grease, proteins, oils and other organic items, while acids are better for removing calcium, rust and other minerals. This is why most surface cleaning chemicals are alkaline, while toilet bowl cleaners and descalers are acidic. In many cases, the pH of conventional cleaning chemicals can be as low as 2 (highly acidic) or as high as 12 (highly alkaline). These will most certainly leave collateral damage on the surfaces they are meant to clean.

So what do ‘green’ certifying bodies have to say about the pH of a cleaning chemical for it to be certified green? Surprisingly little.

The US Environment Protection Agency, for example, requires a green chemical to have a ‘pH closer to neutral, e.g. greater than or equal to 4 and less than or equal to 9.5’. Some other bodies don’t mention pH as a parameter at all.

For context, a product whose pH is anything other than 7 is either acidic or alkaline. Going by the EPA’s definition, cleaning chemicals between 7 and 4 (acidic) and 7 and 9 (alkaline) can also be certified as green.

Unanswered questions

Can something that can damage surfaces and prove hazardous to human health be called green, just because it is of organic origin and biodegradable? Why do some green chemicals come with a warning against using them on surfaces like marble?

If pH was to be made a factor in green assessment, how many green cleaning chemicals would still qualify as green? Will facility heads settle for ‘somewhat green’ chemicals? Is somewhat green, green enough?

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