The "King of Green" raises smiles with his Elvis sideburns and his swagger, but he is serious about the effects of chemicals on health and the environment.
"As small businesses we need to be smart, to look for opportunities to innovate, bring new ideas to the table and look for something that has never been done before," says Gary Walker, who, along with his wife Trisha, transformed their business, Magic Touch Cleaning in Lee's Summit, into one of the first green cleaning services in the Midwest. Five years ago the Walkers, who opened Magic Touch in 1992, started the journey toward green, and they haven't looked back.
"We invested lots of time and money on developing a program that hadn't been invented yet. People within our own trade industry were telling us we would be bankrupt in a year because there was no interest in green cleaning. I guess we were just ahead of our time," observes Trisha.
Their company, which now utilizes eco-friendly products and processes, has 170 accounts and loyal customers who have been with them for 15 years.
Gary admits that going green wasn't just as simple as changing the types of cleaning products that they used: "Once we decided that we were going to go green we had to look at ourselves as a company and basically do a total green makeover. We had to look internally at how we were running as an organization, so we looked all the way down to office supplies and what types of light bulbs we were using."
"I remember my first trip to the office supply store; I spent about an hour looking for all of the products that were made from recycled content."
Finding the right cleaning products was difficult at first too.
"Once it became known that we were trying to go green, companies began sending us samples of their products. Some of this stuff would stain the sink and end up being more toxic than the old toxic stuff," says Gary.
Since the government hasn't defined or set a standard for "green," product labels like "all natural" or "environmentally friendly" don't necessarily guarantee a non-toxic product. Product label statements, such as "biodegradable," "solvent-free," "no petroleum," "no phosphates," "fragrance free" and "plant based," are better indicators of a non-toxic product. Visit msds.com for a full description of cleaning product labels and what they mean.
Gary is aware of the health costs of using toxic cleaners: "If you smell it, it becomes part of your body, and your skin acts as a big sponge. Before I switched to green products, every time I sprayed a cleaning product I began to cough. It was the health of our employees and clients that drove us to make the change to green products."
The health incentives of changing over to green cleaning products cannot be underestimated. Typical cleaning supplies and disinfectants include a variety of chemicals, some of which might cause short- and long-term health effects. Many products also contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are unstable, carbon containing compounds that react with other elements to produce ozone-air pollution. VOCs have been linked to a host of health effects including respiratory problems, headaches, burning and watery eyes, and nausea. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the concentration levels of VOCs are up to 10 times greater indoors than outdoors.
Because Magic Touch uses of non-toxic, low VOC products, Gary observes that, "We provide a cleaner, healthier work environment for both our cleaning associates and our clients."
The Magic Touch process doesn't just end with healthier cleaning products.
"Our process not only utilizes non-toxic cleaning products, but includes using microfiber dusting towels made of recycled plastic that are more efficient and easier to clean for reuse than traditional cotton-fiber cloths," he says.
Additionally, they found they could conserve water by using divided buckets for soap and rinse water. Vacuuming is done with a hard-case, three-stage HEPA filtration machine that removes a greater amount of dust from the air than typical vacuum systems.
The Walkers also started Return to Green, a company that sells safe, non-toxic cleaning products for residential use; it features more than 40 Earth-friendly green cleaning products that are now available in 38 grocery stores in the Kansas City area. They also own Bullseye International, a facility supply business that sells toilet paper and paper towels made of 100 percent recycled material, green-certified foaming hand-soap and environmentally safe cleaning products.
Gary, who has his own "Going Green with the King" radio talk show in the Kansas City area, understands the importance of businesses and individuals making fundamental changes to protect the environment: "We are at a crossroads in the history of America he says. "It will define us as a generation, and what will the future generations say about how we handled ourselves in this time of crisis? Will we take this time and opportunity of renewal and use it to let in the fresh air and ideas and make change, or will we squander it for the narrow and closed mindedness that got us to the very place we now stand?"
(You can listen to "Going Green with the King" on Fridays at noon on KCXL 1140 AM in Kansas City.)
This story was featured in the July 2010 newsletter
- Leah Christian, Missouri Environmental Assistance Center