Coming Clean the Green Way

Nora Cardoza mops the floor. Green Clean uses nontoxic and biodegradable products.
Nora Cardoza mops the floor. Green Clean uses nontoxic and biodegradable products. (Photo by Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
By Jeff Turrentine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 20, 2006

Somewhere, maybe even in your neighborhood, some ecologically minded soul is preparing to commemorate the 37th annual Earth Day (this Saturday) by having a few people over.

It's going to be a swell party. Tofu dogs will be grilled. Organic wine will be poured. The five-disc CD changer will be filled with mellow, multicultural musical offerings from around the world.

But first, the house has to be cleaned from top to bottom. Quick, while nobody's looking: Time to scrub out those sinks with sodium dichloro-s-triazinetrione dihydrate, better known as Comet. Those grimy kitchen countertops are no match for propylene glycol n-butyl ether, the active ingredient in Formula 409. From the Tilex tumbler, a shot of tetrapotassium EDTA, with a nonionic surfactant chaser, will make short work of that stubborn ring on the rim of the bathtub.

It's not easy being green, especially when you're waging war against dirt. Even those who like to think of themselves as environmentally conscious probably -- albeit privately -- believe that you can't rid kitchens, bathrooms, carpets and counters of the filth and bacteria that settle there without super-strong chemicals with super-long names.

Loren LaVoy wants to assuage those doubts. The owner of Green Clean, an environmentally friendly cleaning company based -- where else? -- in Greenbelt, swears that he and his crew can make houses and offices gleam using products that are safe, nontoxic and biodegradable. That means none of the chlorine, ammonia or harsh chemicals found in most household cleaners -- which many believe to be harmful to animals and people in the short term and to the planet in the long term.

His company's biggest hurdle, he admits, is that many of us not only have made our peace with caustic chemicals in our household products, we now reflexively associate the odors and shines given off by various solvents with the whole idea of cleanliness.

"It's hard to put a gleam [on a surface], or to make it 'smell' clean, when you're using environmentally friendly products," LaVoy says. Other cleaning companies, he maintains, "will go into a bathroom, spray some bleach on the walls and then leave 10 seconds later. Then, when you walk in, you sense that it's clean because you can't breathe."

LaVoy, 28, was raised near Lake Placid, in New York's Adirondack Mountains, and spent his childhood swimming in pristine rivers and breathing clean air. As a professed lover of the outdoors -- an Eagle Scout, he proudly leads College Park Boy Scout Troop 740 -- he says that his inborn affinity for nature led him to lean green when starting his cleaning business in 2002.

Things began slowly. "We had a Yellow Pages ad for two years that netted us two calls, I think," he says. But once word of mouth began to spread, he and his partners were able to expand, adding crew members as the job requests came in. Four years later, business is buzzing.

The onetime engineer doesn't like to waste anything, including human energy. He instructs his crew members in "the economy of motion," he says, "always working from left to right, and top to bottom, so you don't end up cleaning the floor before you dust the chandelier and the dust falls down to the ground." A Green Clean team can give a typical three-bedroom, two-bathroom house the once-over in less than two hours, since each crew has members dedicated solely to kitchens and bathrooms, "where 90 percent of the work takes place," according to LaVoy.

One of his favorite green cleaning agents is H2Orange2, basically a solution derived from hydrogen peroxide and citrus oil. He uses it in different concentrations, "a very heavy one for cleaning grout and sanitizing bathrooms, and a light one for cleaning countertops, walls and things like that. It's antiviral, antibacterial and antifungal, and it biodegrades to water and oxygen."

He's also a big champion of cleaning wood floors with Murphy's Oil Soap, which, he notes, is Green Seal certified, meaning that it has achieved the green movement's equivalent of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.

For glass surfaces, LaVoy eschews ammonia-based cleaners for a combination of baking soda, vinegar and water applied to the glass as a paste, allowed to dry, then rubbed off with a non-lint or microfiber cloth. He admits that the whole process is "a pain in the neck. But when you're finished, it's so beautiful; it's like the glossiest mirror you've ever seen."

The engineer in LaVoy is especially enamored of the water-filtration vacuum cleaners that the Green Clean team uses on their jobs. "So when we go from house to house, we don't bring with us big bags of dust and debris. These have a built-in water basin: Dust gets sucked through a cyclone in the water, and wet dust doesn't go anywhere." The clumps of soggy dust and pet dander can be tossed out with the trash, and the water, LaVoy says proudly, "goes right back into the ground."

LaVoy is pleased to see that more environmentally friendly cleaning products are appearing on the shelves, and sings the praises of brands such as Seventh Generation (maker of laundry and dishwater detergents, among other things) and the EcoSolve brand of paint removers. But he's also a skilled improviser.

"An old credit card is great for cleaning up dried pancake batter," he says, when asked how people might approach various types of small cleaning jobs without resorting to spray bottles filled with chemicals. "For cleaning wooden cutting boards, coarse kosher salt -- sprinkled on and rubbed in with a paper towel -- gets right down into the wood. Salt is anti- everything , and it's also a great exfoliant." And giving the so-called universal solvent its due, LaVoy affirms that "a little bit of water on a rag can go a long, long way."

LaVoy acknowledges that some clients want . . . need . . . to smell that fragrance of citrus, or to see that translucent shine, in order to feel like their house is truly clean. To assure them, he has experimented with natural additives, including lemon oil and even olive oil.

Combined with a little elbow grease, he says, they make for surfaces that look and smell so clean -- and are, in fact, so safe -- you could eat right off them.

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