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To clean or not to clean

Neil Brown, of leading contract cleaner Hygiene Group, discusses just how sustainable cleaning within the food industry really is, and suggests that perhaps the most sustainable way of cleaning is not to clean at all...

Creating totally sustainable, environmentally friendly cleaning products within the food production industry is, arguably, fairly unachievable. No matter how eco-friendly the substance used is, the material removed remains a potential pollutant.

The nature of soiling within food handling and production is invariably very complex. Fats, proteins, firming agents, sugars and metals all need different reactants to be broken down and removed and when preparing food. Cleaning anything more than a small spillage usually requires a chemical, meaning that there are still very few truly ‘green’ cleaning products. For example, a facility handling raw meat generally needs a strongly alkaline chemical to break up protein and suspend fats, and to dissolve salts and sugars present in the meat. Therefore chemical use is hard to avoid in any environment handling chemically complex products, and it just isn’t realistic to reduce chemical use by compensating with hotter water or more manpower, due to the additional cleaning time and cost involved.

Whatever the cleaning medium, everything removed will inevitably enter the environment, whether washed down a sink or placed into a bin. Reusable microfibre cloths are often suggested as a solution, but because these must be washed before use, debris from them will enter the wastewater system anyway.

A totally biodegradable microfiber cloth would be a great solution – however such a product is yet to be invented.

To some extent, cleaning with eco-chemicals is achievable, but it requires locally produced crops to generate the components of cleaning materials, which must be produced without using chemical energy while still being fully biodegradable.

Ironically, eco-chemicals can have a larger carbon footprint than conventional detergents. A 'green' detergent produced from sustainably managed biomass sounds good on paper, but if the raw material is imported and requires significant energy in local processing it isn’t. And, with the laws of chemistry the same for everyone, the eco-chemical will often have the same pH as conventional materials, the same suspended solids and the same COD and BOD level when rinsed away.

In terms of whether or not frequent cleaning in the food industry is necessary, the need for frequent surface disinfection is certainly questionable. Thorough cleaning removes most microbiological contamination, but if the equipment or surface is to be reused within a few hours, routine disinfection may offer no practical benefit. For example, production equipment, such as a meat mincer, can often run for extended times without requiring

SUSTAINABLE CLEANING 46 | TOMORROW’S CLEANING | The future of our cleaning industry

cleaning as it’s generally only when production stops that bacteria starts to build up and a thorough clean is needed.

One solution is to run the facility continuously for say, three days a week, with a complete clean only required at the end of the production cycle, rather than five or six shifts meaning machinery and surfaces need daily cleaning.

The traditional view of cleaning is an ‘end of shift’ process to ready equipment and surfaces for the following day, but that needs to change if food handlers and producers are serious about maximising sustainability. By simply removing the need for cleaning and disinfecting so regularly, cleaning sustainability can be maximised, with material and manpower costs simultaneously reduced.

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