Bringing Environmental Accountability to the Cleaning Industry

Somerville Sustainable CleaningPhoto by Adrianne Mathiowetz.

After years working in the cleaning industry, Marcelo Silva was burned out.

“It’s a high-burnout industry,” he explains. “[There’s] this tendency of the industry of not caring for its actions, and not caring about how it handles its employees.”

He took time off to reflect, asking himself, “What can I do that’s meaningful?” That question led to the birth of Somerville Sustainable Cleaning, which Silva started out of his Union Square home in 2010.

“The vision for it was to be different in the way we did things, and to be sustainable,” Silva explains. “Sustainability’s one of those words that’s really hard to define. For me, personally, it’s the ability to provide value to our customers and at the same time to be as environmentally friendly as possible, and to be able to repeat that process every day.”

Silva’s three-pronged definition of sustainability ripples throughout the company’s practices, from chemicals to cleaning techniques to Silva’s attitude toward the staff. Take vinegar: the common cleaner is cheap, Silva explains, but it’s also acidic, can cause microcracks in glass, and is bad for electronics, plus its repeated use has been linked to respiratory problems for cleaners, so his company steers clear of it.

The approach is far from what Silva experienced when he first entered the industry. He says they would use “stronger and stronger” chemicals and wipe immediately. At Somerville Sustainable Cleaning, they use milder cleaners and give them time to stand.

“It takes a little bit more time, but if [done] properly, it’s just as effective, and the difference is usually less than 10 percent of labor consumption,” he says. “But it’s much better environmentally, and it’s much better for the operator. They’re exposed to a lot less harsh chemicals.”

The list goes on: “Less aggressive” vacuums that yield better results because they’re less straining for workers. Bucketless mops that use 70 percent less water and leave surfaces cleaner than the traditional model does, largely by preventing the water source from getting dirty. Reusable microfiber cloths that last longer and don’t need as much chemical as regular cleaning rags do.

Starting the company shortly after the financial crisis, Silva knew he wanted Somerville Sustainable Cleaning to be self-financed so there wouldn’t be outside pressure to “cut corners” in the ways he saw were common in the industry. Sticking to its principles seems to have worked for the company, which now has a staff of about 40. More than half of Somerville Sustainable Cleaners’ sites are in Somerville or Cambridge, including Aeronaut Brewing Co., Bluebikes, Bow Market, and Formlabs.

“We work with a lot of young companies,” Silva says. “They believe in what we’re doing, a lot of startups, a lot of tech companies, a lot of companies that are following that Google idea of giving a creative outlet within the workspace. There’s definitely a transition going on right now in which workspace is becoming very nontraditional, and we have been able to really adapt to those companies.” 

The company is always looking for ways to further its mission of sustainability, from offering recyclable and biodegradable supplies to clients to trying out new cleaning techniques.

“Every day, we ask ourselves, ‘How can we be environmentally friendlier?’” Silva says. “Every month, there’s always something here that we change, that we address, that makes a small impact on the environment around us. And that really brings me great satisfaction, and the rest of the management team.”

For more information, visit somervillecleaning.com or call (617) 547-0450.

This story originally appeared in the Environmental Issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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