By: Ben Shieh, Creative Director for Ultra Chem Labs
For over a decade, Olivia Claus has been operating the Green Cleaning program at the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS) in Maryland. As Executive Director of Facilities, she represents the first U.S. public school system to be awarded the Green Seal, GS-42 Environmental Certification for proven accomplishments in implementing a program that successfully protects the environment and human health. Among other achievements, the school system has managed to keep 655 tons of toxic sludge from entering the environment.¹
Ms. Claus has transformed her school system into the most environmentally conscious in the country by working together with more than 500 members of her service team, people in charge of custodial, grounds, energy, maintenance, integrated pest management, and risk management. Her 21 years of experience in K-12 facilities as an Engineering Associate and Senior Operations Supervisor, as well as the last 12 years with HCPSS, were key in her identifying the continued environmental degradation that was occurring within her schools and the facilities industry as a whole.
Chemical manufacturers were making too many chemicals and distributors were selling them to schools that would end up storing large amounts of these substances at their facilities. As time passed, managing these harmful chemicals became a problem. Thousands of gallons of carcinogenic styrenated² floor finishes had been brought into the schools and high levels of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) were contributing to a rapid drop in indoor air quality³. Labor costs were high, schools were not clean, and absenteeism was consistently rising. Ms. Claus was among the few who saw the big picture and realized the seriousness of the problem. A change had to happen or conditions would worsen.
Back in 1999, Dr. John Shieh, an expert toxicologist, forensic scientist, and the Director of Technical Services for Ultra Chem Labs, had flown from Vancouver, Canada for a two-day meeting with Dr. Jim Marlett, then Facility Director at Calvert County Schools, also in Maryland. “What level of green do you want to be at?” Dr. Shieh had asked Dr. Marlett. He was referring to how much of an environmental impact the facility director wanted to make.
There are three levels of green that can be attained. The first level is political correctness; by purchasing third party Green Certified products from a distributor, institutions are perceived by the majority of people as making a concerted effort to use green cleaning practices in their schools.
The second level of green is based on reducing the amount of VOCs present. Poor indoor air quality attributed to gases from high VOC substances has been one of the largest contributing factors to what the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calls “sick building syndrome”.³ Many man-made VOCs from floors, wood coatings, and chemical strippers are carcinogenic and may have respiratory, allergic, and immune impacts on infants and children. Current floor coatings at school gyms range from 250-600 mg/L of VOCs and acrylic floor finishes average about 250 mg/L. In 1999, the Ultra Floor Program at the school implemented the facility-wide use of a non-styrene, water-based acrylic floor finish that contained only 4 mg/L of VOCs.
The third level of green is about addressing the chemical source pollution. To grasp the severity of the term ‘source pollution’, it is important to understand its significance. When custodial teams are instructed to strip dirty and worn floor finishes (during the summer and sometimes at the beginning of the winter), they will flood-apply strippers to all hard floor surfaces to chemically remove the finishes. As the floor finishes emulsify, a sludge-like compound is produced, containing many chemical components that are not biodegradable, including VOCs, styrene², urethanes, caustics, heavy metals, and numerous other hazardous materials. These compounds are the ‘source pollution’. Therefore, the options provided to Dr. Marlett, if implemented correctly, would address all desired levels of green. He could eliminate the stripping cycle, reducing man-hours by 50%, and chemical costs by up to 60%. Having been a math teacher before becoming an administrator, Dr. Shieh’s numbers sounded very appealing to Dr. Marlett.
Dr. Marlett then selected one school to be the test bed for the program. A business model was set in place to convert Calvert County’s 26 schools over three years, creating the first Green Floor Care Program in the country. It was a manageable and measurable program that included training seminars, hands-on experience with service members, and constant reporting to maintain the program’s direction. The main reason for the program’s success was Dr. Marlett’s commitment to captain his own ship and monitor progress first hand. To the present day, Calvert County Schools in Maryland have been on the Ultra Floor Care program for 18 years, increasing cleanliness in its schools by using only three products, while keeping 396.72 tons of toxic sludge from entering the environment.
Training took place immediately to add an environmentally conscious non-styrene floor finish to all hard floors, and additional training to his custodians was provided on maintenance and top-scrubbing techniques. At the end of that first year, having gone full circle with the recommended floor program, the numbers revealed that chemical costs were indeed cut by 60% and man-hours by 50%. The custodians of the first completed school could hardly believe that the durability of the Ultra finish would result in the elimination of the stripping cycle altogether. Two additional products were then recommended to take care of remaining cleaning and disinfecting needs.
All of this was achieved while maintaining increased savings for labor and chemicals through nearly two decades. It was this initial partnership between Ultra Chem Labs and Calvert County that set the stage for what was soon to be implemented at HCPSS. Although Ms. Claus was on top of the day-to-day operations of her facilities, vital data still eluded her.
In March 2005, Ms. Claus was introduced to Dr. Shieh. With him, she made the decision that would bring about the change she had so clearly envisioned for HCPSS: creating world-class school facilities that protect the health of students and the environment. Dr. Shieh had a solid record behind him.
Again, Dr. Shieh posed the questions. He asked Ms. Claus, “How much of this stuff are you creating? And where does it go? Drop sinks? Parking lots? Storm drains? The grass? How does such a harmful process affect the health of the building occupants, teachers, children, and staff?” Most people would choose not to answer these tough questions and leave the accountability to somebody else. But Ms. Claus was not like most people. Therefore, steps were taken to measure the square footage of one school and their chemical usage per year when it came to the floor stripping process. As Dr. Shieh proceeded with his calculations, Ms. Claus was anxious about the upcoming data; yet, she also felt a strong sense of enthusiasm and excitement. Regardless of what the results would be, she was ready to effect change and create a program that would fulfill her vision of making every school a safer place to learn and work.
Dr. Shieh determined the amount of toxic waste produced and told her the news: “Your school, on average, creates and discards 1,360.24 pounds of source pollution every year.” A very significant amount, although not atypical for school buildings of similar size.
Ten years later, seventy-five schools in the system have transitioned to the Ultra Floor Care program and HCPSS stands today as the most environmentally conscious school system in the country. With Ms. Claus’s leadership, her staff has implemented a truly successful green cleaning program. She has taught her team to understand that, “You are more than custodians. You are ambassadors of the school. You are the key to the building’s health and success.” Extensive training and care is the focus when teaching her custodians. They are taught to be self-reliant and to live and breathe the values behind Ms. Claus’s vision. As her team of 500 staff members galvanizes together, so does the community. Teachers, students, and administrators follow closely the example she has so widely established. Led by Ms. Claus, her team was instrumental in achieving the Green Seal 42 Certification Program, which awarded HCPSS the first K-12 Green Seal certification in the country. In 2012 and also under her leadership, the Cleaning Program of HCPSS’s Office of Custodial Services won the Grand Green Cleaning Award for Schools & Universities and is now a proud member of the Green Clean Schools Leadership Council.⁴
So, the central question for a facilities manager is: “how can I start implementing a true green cleaning program?” First, the right education is needed. To succeed, a level of green must be chosen. All green cleaning needs fall into the three levels described earlier: Green Certification (political correctness), Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs),⁵ and Source Pollution Reduction. To reach the highest level of green with the elimination of the stripping cycle, and reduce chemical costs by 60%, the right chemistry must be obtained. Next, it is vital for the facility director to face the changes required by the facility based on their desired environmental impact. Many directors may feel challenged by the upfront costs, the lack of staff training and cooperation, or by the difficulties of changing the old ways of doing things.
But these barriers should not prevent you from implementing positive change to protect your students’ health and the environment. Do not rush change. The common denominator between Calvert County Schools and HCPSS was the fact that each facility first chose a test bed school. The priority was then to bring in the right chemistry and implement an uncompromising training program for staff members to successfully transition one entire school as an example for the rest. After that, everything would fall into place. In HCPSS’s case, hundreds of staff members adopted new procedures using new chemistry across facilities, and proved the viability of a truly successful green cleaning program.
About the Author
Since 2010, Benjamin Shieh has worked extensively in the refinement and progression of true green cleaning programs. His extensive experience in the janitorial sanitation industry has aided in bridging the gap between differing industries to continue raising awareness for environmental preservation and true green cleaning practices. Educating green cleaning programs outside of the country has also been a priority for Benjamin, as he has worked with multiple Canadian school facility members on furthering education in leadership skills, appropriate chemistry, and manageable long term programs. Benjamin Shieh is currently working closely with Dr. John Shieh on Green Cleaning informational seminar circuits across the country.
¹Green Seal Profile on Olivia Claus: “Maryland’s Howard County Is First Public School System To Achieve GS-42” May, 2012,
²Profile on Styrene: “Styrene”, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Sept. 2016, https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2016-09/documents/styrene.pdf
³Sick Building Syndrome: “Indoor Air Facts No. 4 Sick Building Syndrome”, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Aug, 2014, https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2014-08/documents/sick_building_factsheet.pdf
⁴Green Clean Schools Leadership Council: “School facility directors gear up for Green Clean Schools Leadership Institute”, June. 2016, http://www.usgbc.org/articles/school-facility-directors-gear-green-clean-schools-leadership-institute
⁵Volatile Organic Compounds: “Volatile Organic Compounds’ Impact on Indoor Air Quality”, Sept. 2016, https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/volatile-organic-compounds-impact-indoor-air-quality