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Cleaning up chemicals' image19th of May 2011
'Chemicals' has become something of a dirty word as an increasing number of manufacturers launch alternative cleaning solutions based on natural products, water, microfibre etc. But have chemicals been given a bad press unfairly? Ann Laffeaty finds out.
An increasing number of products that claim to offer chemical-free cleaning have appeared on the market over recent years. Systems that employ the use of microfibre cloths, ionised water, natural ingredients or steam all claim to reduce the need for chemicals and are therefore billed as environmentally friendly, ethical and safe.
So does this mean that traditional chemical solutions are none of these things? And how do chemical companies feel about being the 'bad guys' of the cleaning world by inference?
According to sustainability manager of Diversey Ed Roberts the premise that chemicals are necessarily bad and natural alternatives are good is based on a series of misconceptions. “There is a lot of confusion about what is a chemical and what is natural,” he said. “When people talk about ‘natural products’ they imply that these are not chemical-based - but everything is made up of 90-odd chemical elements whether it is a petrochemical, a butterfly, a human or a daffodil.”
He adds it is very rare for a cleaning product to be made entirely from natural products. “Most will go through a synthesis that turns the natural ingredients into a detergent, and this process will often involve the use of oil,” he said. “And when you consider that petrochemical oil itself is ultimately made from plants you can see that the picture becomes much less black and white.”
According to Roberts the trend for anti-chemical marketing using negative terms such as 'harsh chemicals' and 'artificial additives' is often misleading. “For example, there are TV adverts that claim a particular shampoo contains no artificial additives or harsh chemicals,” he said. “But harsh chemicals would never be added to any shampoo product. And since shampoo doesn’t exist in nature it is in itself artificial - so why would artificial additives be a bad thing?
“In any case the idea that natural equals good and chemicals equals bad is illogical. Cyanide, MRSA, uranium and a puff adder snake are all examples of natural phenomena - but you wouldn’t want to come into contact with any of them.”
However Roberts claims alternative cleaning systems that avoid the use of chemicals are in themselves a positive move. “Technologies such as ionised water and microfibre cloths are valuable additions to our cleaning armoury,” he said. “But I don’t think they are the panacea for all cleaning applications. Chemicals are still more effective for tasks such as cleaning the oven or coping with heavy industrial dirt or grease in factories.”
Hazardous chemical reduction
He cited the 'Sinner’s Circle' premise that cleaning relies on four main elements: Time, Temperature, Mechanical Action and Chemical Action. “For example in less sophisticated cultures the laundry is still carried out using a bar of soap and some rocks by the riverside,” he said. “But this requires a great deal of time and mechanical energy, so in western society we prefer to perform the task more quickly and efficiently using heat and chemicals.
“Similarly a household dishwasher will take around an hour-and-a-half to complete its cycle, whereas a commercial kitchen dishwasher only takes three minutes because it operates at much
higher temperatures using more aggressive chemicals.”
The use of hazardous chemicals in general is being reduced in line with increasingly stringent legislation and greater concern for health and safety issues, says Roberts. However he says a balance still needs to be struck between cleaning efficiency and reduced chemical input.
“The customer is still saying that we need to clean this hospital, garage or school very quickly because we are paying a great deal for labour,” he said. “There is an absolute requirement for productivity and speed. Otherwise we will be going back to a situation where cleaning is carried out using a bar of soap and a rock by the river - and that wouldn’t work in a school or a hospital.”
Chemical products manager for Prochem Paul Reynolds agrees there is a great deal of misinformation about what constitutes a chemical product. “You see TV programmes that urge the viewer to replace their household chemical cleaning solutions with store cupboard ingredients such as vinegar, lemon juice and bicarbonate of soda,” he said. “The implication is that these are less ‘chemical’ than pre-prepared products you would buy in a shop, when this is not true.
“Water is a chemical, we are chemicals – and everything has some sort of impact. If you are promoting ‘chemical-free’ cleaning from an environmental point of view there are always going to be pros and cons.”
In any case, he says, chemicals are still the most effective solution for certain tasks. “When you are trying to remove grease, stubborn stains or heavy soil you can’t always achieve an effective clean with alternative products,” he said.
He added chemical products are becoming safer and more sustainable. “All detergents today have to exhibit certain levels of biodegradability, and many of the more harmful ones have been banned or phased out.”
According to Bio-Productions managing director Mike James: ”You have to use some sort of energy to carry out a cleaning job. You can use a clean cloth to wipe the dust away, but the dust will just float around in the atmosphere and settle back on to surfaces. You can use water alone, but water is not ‘wet’ enough to remove soiling – you have to add something to it first. So if you want a clean and healthy environment you are going to need chemical input.”
He has mixed feelings about alternative methodology. “Microfibre cloths are a good option because they make the energy of your arm more efficient and reduce the amount of chemical cleaning agent required to carry out an efficient job,” he said. “But ionised water is not so effective with grease, fats and oils as chemicals since you need to wrap up the sticky residue and lift it from the surface.”
He claims chemicals are essential for certain cleaning tasks. “When cleaning an oven or a barbecue for example you can scrape off the grease, but you still need something to remove the adhesion of oily deposits,” he said. “The same applies to cleaning a car engine.”
Marketing communication specialist for Ecolab Europe Jasmin Antoni argues against making sweeping statements regarding chemical products. “It is not accurate to broadly characterise chemicals as harmful or to consider the environmental impact of a product based solely on its ingredients,” she said. “Safe ingredients are important but it is equally important to consider the holistic total impact of our products including their energy, water and waste impacts as well.”
She says the four elements of the Sinner's Circle - Time, Temperature, Mechanical Action and Chemical Action – need to be kept in the right balance to achieve a safe and effective clean. “If you remove or reduce one or more of these elements, the cleaning process becomes less effective since the other factors need to be increased to compensate,” she said. “This can produce less than ideal results. At Ecolab we encompass these four key factors with a fifth element – Procedures – which involves delivering training at each customer site to ensure that the other four factors are executed properly.”
Ecolab applauds the use of microfibres to reduce chemical consumption. But Antoni feels that sometimes only a chemical product will do the job. “Without the use of cleaning chemicals that act fast, predictably, and are safe to use, the cleaning process will be less efficient,” she said. “You can clean many surfaces without chemicals - for example, you can clean with steam only - but this procedure is very time-consuming and does not support effective cleaning.
“And in hard water conditions where tasks such as deliming, dishwashing, stripping and machine cleaning need to be carried out, only specialised chemicals are able to achieve excellent, durable cleaning results.”
Novozymes Biologicals uses microorganisms found in nature for cleaning applications and considers itself to be a biotechnology company rather than a chemicals manufacturer. However enzymes are classified as chemicals in Europe and have to adhere to REACH regulations.
Customer communications manager Jennifer Riley feels that biological cleaning provides a safe but effective form of 'chemical' cleaning. “Enzymes are readily biodegradable and by replacing traditional chemical ingredients with enzymes, detergent manufacturers can offer a safe, sustainable detergent that works well at low temperatures while reducing the environmental impact of washing,” she said.
She agrees there is a trend towards marketing products that are natural or chemical-free. “It is difficult to generalise as to whether or not this is good as these terms are somewhat undefined, but any move away from harsh chemicals is a good thing.”
According to Riley, the future of the industry may lie in driving innovation and sustainable growth through the replacement of harsh chemicals with safer biological solutions. “In time we believe this will contribute to improving the image of the chemical industry as well,” she said. “If the key players in the chemical industry choose to see increased regulation as an opportunity for innovation while providing new opportunities to improve the sustainability of their products, the industry will certainly have a place in society in the future.”