Eco-friendly housekeeping: How to keep hotels, the planet clean and safe

Housekeepers do not need to spray a full surface with harsh chemicals to get it clean. Photo credit: Getty / Drazen_

Eco-friendly travel has gone from niche to normal in recent years, but the COVID-19 pandemic and the need for strong sanitizing agents to keep hotel workers and guests safe has put owners and managers in a bind. How do you keep your property free from dangerous pathogens without using dangerous chemicals? 

Over the last year, the Aspen Meadows Resort in Aspen, Colo., took advantage of its position as home to a branch of The Aspen Institute to learn more about keeping the property operating sustainably. The Aspen Institute is a global nonprofit organization committed to helping solve important challenges facing the United States and the world, including environmental issues.

“‘Balancing is the key word here,” said Richard Stettner, VP for Aspen campus facilities and operations. The property uses a peroxide multisurface cleaner and disinfectant from Ecolab, and housekeepers spray all high-touch surfaces like door handles and faucets first and let it sit for between five and 10 minutes while they clean other areas. 

The hotel team, Stettner said, has spent significant time with both Ecolab and managing company Wyndham Hotels & Resorts to make sure that the peroxide cleaner is the best pick for the hotel and that it is being used correctly. The hotel team has diagrammed the guestrooms and trained the staff with a list of specific steps to make sure each area and touchpoint is cleaned in a specific order for maximum efficacy. “Everyone's following that same process so that we are making sure that all the rooms are cleaned up to our expectations,” he said. 

The hotel also has scheduled extra attendants in the public areas to wipe down all doors and other high-touch points. The extra staff costs the property about $200 per day, Stettner estimated.

The Universal Solvent

George Clarke, founder and CEO of UMF Corp., which develops high-performance textiles for the commercial cleaning and infection prevention markets, said hotels are now seeking hospital-level cleanliness and disinfection—and hospitals can be a good place to look for ideas on how to keep spaces clean and healthy. In one study, he claimed, a hospital had a staff member walk around during a shift and regularly wipe down frequently touched surfaces. “Their infection rate dropped by [about] 30 percent,” he said.

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Instead of using harsh chemicals on surfaces, Clarke recommends the “universal solvent”—in other words, water. “Water is a chemical,” Clarke said, “and it is considered by chemists the world over as the universal solvent because it actually will dissolve most things. Not everything, but more than almost any other product in the market.” Traditional glass cleaners, he said, are “probably the biggest waste of time and money anyone could ever spend.” By misting fabric made from material smaller than microfiber, he said, housekeepers can safely clean anything in a room, and can even prevent chemical buildup like one might feel on a restaurant table. “There's such a buildup of residue of chemicals, it's broken down the polymers—the plastic coatings on the table—and made it a sticky mess,” he said. 

Housekeepers and cleaning teams traditionally spray the entire surface of the table before wiping it down, Clarke continued: “You can't remove anything when you're soaking everything with chemicals or disinfectant.” Worse yet, the spray can get on salt and pepper shakers or other equipment that remains on the table. Instead, Clarke’s team teaches cleaning staff to mist and then fold a microfiber cloth twice to have eight individual cleaning cloths that can clean eight surfaces. “You're actually removing everything from the surface and eliminating it from that table,” he said.  


In September, “beneficial bacteria” company Novozymes launched the Microvia line of probiotic cleaning products. The microbial technology is meant to achieve deep cleaning on hard surfaces without using harsh cleaning and disinfection agents. “Instead of cleaning with the harshest chemistry possible, we see that there's a biological alternative that actually adds more bacteria—changing the paradigm—to the surfaces,” said Clemens Heikaus, head of microbial cleaning at Novozymes. Those probiotics can fit into microscopic cracks in the surface and continue eliminating germs after the initial cleaning is done.

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Harsh chemicals like bleach and other disinfectants can have “unintended consequences,” Heikaus said, crediting lung disease and allergies as possible side effects of exposure: “And on top of that, of course, the consumers are [thinking], ‘Yeah, killing everything is not the answer. What if I work with the microbiome? What if I work with the bacteria, the good bacteria, and create an environment that is actually more sustainable, more natural and better for me and for my family?’” 

Top Tips

A key element to effective cleaning is training, Clarke emphasized, and taking the time to do the job carefully. Before Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide was acquired by Marriott International in 2016, UMF worked with Starwood to develop a cleaning protocol that would maximize efficiency and cleanliness. The color-coded system keeps certain materials limited to certain parts of the guestroom—for example, the cloth that cleans the toilet doesn’t touch anything else in the space. “They had between seven to nine different chemicals on the housekeeping cart,” Clarke said. Using this system, “They reduced it to two—an all-purpose cleaner and a disinfectant.”

Don't be fooled by ‘eco-friendly’ packaging

Sustainable cleaning isn’t only about what products housekeepers use, but what they don't use. Flushable wipes are having a “disastrous” impact on sewage systems, Clarke said. Even disposable products that claim to be biodegradable have to be exposed to sunlight in order to break down properly—something unlikely to happen in most landfills.