Janitorial supply firm aims to make all its products 'earth friendly'

Most people don't think too deeply about who cleans their workplaces and how Ñ and with which chemicals.

But the hazards of traditional cleaning potions are well-documented. They can injure the eyes and skin of the janitors who handle them and the lungs of the people who later breathe them. They can contain cancer-causing ingredients, neurotoxins and endocrine disruptors. And eventually, they either get dumped down the drain or disposed of as hazardous waste.

'It's a real problem,' says Roger McFadden, vice president of Coastwide Laboratories, the largest janitorial supply company in the Northwest. 'No one fabricated the fact that cleaning products are hazardous to workers and bad for the environment. It's real. The question is, can you do anything about it?'

McFadden and Coastwide are banking that they can. They have developed a new line of 'sustainable earth' products that they hope will transform the marketplace. They now plan to remix the rest of their products in the next five years to meet strict standards of environmental safety.

'We've chosen to take our whole process, companywide, and make it as earth-friendly as possible,' says Jim Evans, vice president of marketing for Coastwide.

John Martilla, Coastwide's executive vice president, traces his company's heritage to two out-of-work Portlanders, Roy Paulsen and Frank Roles, who began concocting cleaning products out of Paulsen's home in 1937.

'They made their products by night and sold them by day,' Martilla says. 'They moved the business from the back yard to the basement until a basement fire forced them back out into the yard again.'

The firm of Paulsen & Roles later moved to Northeast Seventh Avenue and Hancock Street. Martilla and Coastwide President Grant Watkinson purchased the company in 1977, keeping the original name.

At that time, there were nine workers. Several expansions and mergers later, Coastwide Laboratories is a 150-employee business based in Wilsonville and has 11 branches in Oregon and Washington. The company distributes cleaning supplies to businesses, schools, universities, municipalities, hotels and hospitals throughout the region.

Building a standard

McFadden argues that less toxic chemicals can work just as well, with far less harm. He's researching the effectiveness of soy-based solvents and milk-based cleaners, among many others, as he leads Coastwide's venture into 'sustainable' cleaning products.

There was no industry standard when McFadden started the project. He worked with the Portland-based nonprofit Zero Waste Alliance to create one, drawing on scientific literature, Environmental Protection Agency guidelines and a helpful database provided by Purdue University in Indiana.

Coastwide spent more than two years developing its new product line, which won the firm a BEST (Businesses for an Environmentally Sustainable Tomorrow) award from the city of Portland last month. It also seems to be selling well with professionals within the city's growing 'green building' community.

Dan Budihardjo, sustainability coordinator and property manager for the Pacific Real Estate Management Group, says he's set up an exclusive contract with Coastwide for four of the new Brewery Blocks buildings.

'They went well beyond what the other companies were doing as far as sustainable products go,' Budihardjo said. 'They took the time to research things thoroughly and to be transparent, which gives them a lot of credibility.'

Products have to work

McFadden says the keys to the venture's success are simple: The green products must work as well as or better than traditional cleaning materials, and they have to cost roughly the same.

'If you don't do that, you're destined for failure,' he says. 'That's what happened with the companies that tried to enter the market with products that met environmental standards but didn't work. They got laughed out of the marketplace.'

It's a marketplace that's been a bit short on cash lately. Municipalities and schools are doing their best to stretch tax dollars, and companies are cutting back on expenses to avoid layoffs in tough economic times.

Still, Watkinson sees big potential in the niche market of sustainability.

Similarly, Budihardjo says he expects to save money over time by using less harmful cleaners:

'If we can alleviate any of our liability from chemical exposure, we're a step ahead of the game costwise. As long as the products work, I don't see why we wouldn't choose them.'

Contact Ben Jacklet at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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