More states are requiring schools and government buildings to use environmentally friendly cleaning products, raising debate about their costs and benefits.
After a burst of legislation last year, 10 states including Connecticut, Illinois and New York require or encourage "green" floor waxes, window cleaners and other products in schools, according to Green Seal Inc., a nonprofit that certifies the products. Similar bills are expected to be debated this year in at least five states.
Critics say that while the measures are laudable, states should not mandate which products schools and agencies must buy, especially if they increase costs for governments that are struggling financially.
But supporters say the laws protect the environment and reduce the use of harsh chemicals that can harm workers' and children's health.
"The goal of the bill is to make schools and other public space less toxic and healthier for kids and the general public," said Democratic Rep. Cory Mason, sponsor of a bill in Wisconsin.
Nevada lawmakers watered down a bill last year that would have required green cleaning products in schools after school officials raised concerns about the cost and their lack of expertise in such cleaning. The bill signed by Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons only requires schools to use environmentally sensitive floor cleaners.
In Hawaii, Republican Gov. Linda Lingle last year vetoed a bill that would have required the Department of Education to give preference to products approved by Green Seal. She said it was inappropriate for the state to rely on certifications from "a single private organization." The Democratic-controlled Legislature overrode the veto.
Mason's plan, like those in other states, would require public buildings in Wisconsin to use cleaning and paper products certified as environmentally sensitive by the federal government or several private groups. But it also would encourage agencies to apply the products in ways that reduce water use and the amount of chemicals released into the air.
Green cleaning products are widely available at prices comparable to traditional products. In some cases, manufacturers receive green certifications for products they have long had on the market. After a rocky start years ago, their effectiveness also is now comparable.
"There is no reason to pay a penny more to acquire green products. Plain and simple," said John Matthews, senior vice president for JohnsonDiversey, the Sturtevant, Wis.-based manufacturer of cleaning products used around the globe. "And across the board, reputable companies are capable of making green products that perform well."
But toilet paper, trash bags and paper towels made from recycled materials can still cost up to 20 percent more than traditional products, said Stephen Ashkin, executive director of the Green Cleaning Network in Bloomington, Ind.
Citing the potential higher costs, groups representing schools and municipalities fought Mason's original plan. A recent amendment would give them three years instead of one to comply and allow agencies to opt out if they could show their costs would increase.
"If the choice is between being mandated to buy a new vacuum cleaner or keep your elementary music teacher, I'm not sure that's the direction we ought to be going," said Dan Rossmiller, a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards.
In New York, schools that responded to a state survey said their costs went up 10 percent, on average, in the first year they complied with a 2005 cleaning law. But New York's Office of General Services said successful programs reduce levels of cleaning chemicals, mold and dust that cause asthma attacks, a top reason students miss school.
Linda Chipperfield, a vice president for Green Seal, said its certified products use less packaging and cannot contain chemicals that cause cancer, kill aquatic life or deplete the ozone layer, among other things.
The Wisconsin plan would apply to bathroom and floor cleaners, hand soap, toilet paper, paper towels, vacuum cleaners and carpet extractors. Among its supporters is the powerful Wisconsin Education Association Council, which represents public school teachers and staff.
"The move to make sure we're using the safest products in our schools is something parents expect and school staff certainly want for the kids they teach," spokeswoman Christina Brey said.
Local Republican Rep. Stephen Nass said it was "the dumbest bill" this session and accused Democrats of being out of touch as families continue to struggle economically. But Mason said it keeps with the goal of creating jobs in a "green economy" and would help Wisconsin companies such as JohnsonDiversey and Wausau Paper, a maker of recycled paper products.
Ashkin said it's unclear whether budget-focused legislators will find time to pass green cleaning laws in 2010.
"But without a doubt," he said, "the trend is definitely moving in this direction."
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