Too green to be good?

15th of April 2010
Too green to be good?
Too green to be good?

Increasingly tough legislation and a change in public attitudes have resulted in a marked switch towards 'greener' chemical products in the cleaning industry. But are we going too far down the environmental route at the expense of good cleaning performance? And is the 'green' movement making life difficult for the chemical manufacturers? Ann Laffeaty finds out.

Sustainable cleaning has become the industry’s catchphrase of the 21st century - and this has had a particularly strong impact on the chemical companies. As a result of ever-tightening legislation manufacturers are continually having to produce cleaning products that have the lowest possible impact on the environment.

Increasing numbers of ingredients are being banned and companies are having to alter their formulas and come up with alternative, 'greener' materials. At the same time, customers expect their new formulations to match the performance of their predecessors at the very least.

In some ways chemical companies are caught between a rock and hard place since not only do they have to comply with legislation, they also have to appeal to the customer’s perception of what is environmentally friendly. For example the public tends to view certain products, such as chlorine bleaches for instance, as intrinsically 'bad', while products derived from natural sources are generally considered to be 'good'.

Working within these parameters can be tough, particularly when public perceptions are not always accurate. As Diversey’s sustainability manager Ed Roberts puts it: “We tend to think of ‘natural’ products as good – but let’s not forget that 'natural’ includes everything from uranium and mercury to swine flu and MRSA.

Effective at killing germs

“And while bleaches in high quantities do have an effect on the environment, on the upside they are very effective at killing germs. They also tend to be recommended where a spill of body fluids presents a risk of HIV, so there is a potential social impact in banning the use of bleaches. Where environmental messages are being given out by the media I don’t think people are getting a balanced argument.”

According to Roberts, however, increasing restrictions on the use of chemical ingredients is not a major problem for Diversey. “Provided there is an environmental or human health issue involved it is right and proper to restrict the use of chemicals,” he said. “It is always difficult for chemical manufacturers when ingredients are limited, but as a responsible company we tend to decide unilaterally not to use the potentially harmful ones and we restrict them ourselves first.”

Premiere Products’ local export division director Mark Hughes has no problem with the fact that chlorine bleaches tend to be frowned upon these days. “From a cleaning point of view they don’t really do anything anyway – they just bleach the dirt,” he said. “Liquid bleach only has a shelf life of about three months, too, which means it isn’t a product that can be stored. Chlorine bleaches were just something that people used to use without thinking, whereas modern disinfectants are much more effective.”

Hughes, like Roberts, is philosophical about the 'green movement' in general. “Producing green chemicals is something that we are doing wholeheartedly. As a manufacturer we have always strived to stay ahead of the ‘green’ issue - and when you are forced down a route because of legislation you have to embrace it.”

He claims the performance of environmentally friendly chemicals has improved quite significantly over the years. “In the past the demand wasn’t there which meant the materials weren’t there,” he said. “Now the demand is being driven by the consumer so there is a need for more environmentally friendly products. These may not always be as aggressive as traditional chemicals - but they’re not far off.”

Asked whether the green cleaning movement had gone too far he replied: “Not at this stage. There has been a great deal of lip service paid to the environment and a lot of companies have made money out of it without actually having pinned their colours to the mast.

“If you are going to show yourself to be green you need to be accredited with an ecologo such as the EU Flower. You have to do a lot of work to comply, but most manufacturers are looking towards being accredited.”

Prochem’s chemical products manager Paul Reynolds claims the task of working within today’s sustainability parameters is not an easy one. “There are fewer biocides on the market than there were, and this can be restricting since it is not always easy to find products that offer the same level of performance as their predecessors.”

He  feels products such as alkylphenol ethoxylates that can disrupt the hormones in fish have been justifiably banned, but the fact that many other products have been outlawed as well is causing problems for chemical companies.

“You have to find a suitable alternative and sometimes these take a long time to come to market,” he said. “So you then have to go back to your formula and adjust it in other ways. It is not impossible but it involves a lot of work – and it can be a hassle.”

Bio-Productions’ technical director Dudley Messenger MRSC says another issue for chemical companies is the cost of coming up with new formulations. “When permitted ingredients are limited you have to go to specific suppliers - and if the availability shrinks, the price goes up,” he said. “It also takes time to swap over to alternatives. And of course when you change the ingredients you have to change the product literature as well. It is all a bit of an inconvenience.”

Although he agrees with the concept of 'green cleaning' in general, he feels if is very difficult for an organisation to accurately define the 'greenness' of any ingredient. “Everything is not black and white  - and there are degrees of green,” he said. “Certain terms have been hijacked: for instance, I work with carbon and hydrogen which means I am an organic chemist. It doesn’t mean I grow my own vegetables.”

From a safety point of view, he says it is hard to know where the sustainability movement begins and where it ends. “The environmental movement is right, but it loses its way and then becomes cumbersome because it has never been totally thought out - and the situation is constantly changing.”

According to Ecolab’s director of marketing Jesse Whitehead the raw materials used to formulate a chemical solution are only part of the sustainability picture. She explains that if the cleaning performance of a 'green' product is poor, it may actually render that product less sustainable than a traditional one.  “It would result in the need to use more product, water and energy and eventually more packaging waste to achieve the same ‘one pass cleaning’ as is provided by a super-concentrated product,” she explained.

“A further challenge lies in the supply chain. Certain natural ingredients may be sourced from regions such as Indonesia or Asia Pacific versus local supply. Due to the effort and energy used to ship the raw materials to a given destination, the overall impact on the environment may be worse than when using a local ingredient.”

So providing sustainable solutions is a major challenge for chemical companies. Not only do they have to shoulder the costs and workload involved with finding alternatives to existing ingredients, they also have to tailor their new solutions to the customer’s idea of 'green'. And since a whole range of issues such as packaging, transport and efficiency need to be factored into the equation, it is extremely difficult to assess a product’s true sustainability.

But as far as the International Association of Soaps and Detergents is concerned, the position is relatively simple. According to head of communications Valérie Séjourné:  “We are proactively working towards a better environmental approach and it is our philosophy to steer better practices.

“But of course, the ultimate objective when manufacturing a product is that it should perform. As far as AISE is concerned, provided the performance of the product is secured, the more environmentally friendly it is the better.”

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