Sustainability core to values

15th of October 2010

Since it was founded in 1980 Ecover has been dedicated to developing and producing effective and ecological cleaning products made from plant-based and mineral ingredients. This is a company that has not become sustainable in line with changing trends – it led the way in sustainable business practices. ECJ editor Michelle Marshall visited its factory in Belgium to find out more about the company’s vision and how it is reflected in every aspect of the operation.

Over the last five years the cleaning industry has undergone a major transformation, one that has resulted in a certain amount of confusion among purchasers of chemicals. The advent of ‘greenwash’ in marketing messages means terms such as ‘environmentally friendly’, ‘natural’, ‘harmless’ and ‘ecological’ have become commonplace. But what do they actually mean and how do customers differentiate between those manufacturers simply capitalising on the new ‘green’ trend, and those that genuinely have sustainability at the heart of their operations?

Long before it was fashionable cleaning products manufacturer Ecover decided it would devote itself to developing ecological formulations made from plant-based and mineral ingredients. Not only that, right from the start in 1980 its vision of sustainability was to take ecological, economic and social aspects into account – from the origins of the raw materials, through manufacturing, to the complete biodegradation of the final products.

Over 10 years ago the company implemented its Diamond Model, designed to be a quantifiable tool to evaluate the total life cycle of all its products. That tool is still used when new products are being developed to make sure all the necessary aspects are being evaluated – it’s not just about banning certain chemicals but understanding that everything starts with the sourcing of ingredients and ends with their disposal in the water cycle and their complete assimilation.

The Diamond Model has been validated by an independent company, Vinçotte Environment, and comprises 13 elements. These are: renewable resources; green chemistry; resource proximity; primary efficiency; secondary efficiency; consumer safety; aquatic safety; limited aquatic impact; aerobically degradable ingredients; anaerobically degradable surfactants; phosphorus absence; VOC absence; and primary packaging optimisation.

ECJ visited Ecover’s facility in Malle, Belgium, which the company claims was the first ecological factory in the world when it opened in 1992. Concept manager Peter Malaise explained the vision behind what was a pioneering construction. “The idea was that the building we are in should reflect the values we had for the products – that was central to our strategy. All the techniques used in this type of build did exist when we were planning the factory but they had never been brought together in this way.”

The 9,000 square metre building has been positioned in such a way that its orientation follows the sun’s movement from east to west. Strategically placed windows in the roof allow maximum daylight to enter, meaning there is a minimal need for artificial lighting inside. “We wanted to put the environment at the centre of our operations,” Malaise said.

“We have also used a large amount of wood in the construction,” he added, “which is laminated beams of European pine. This is low cost and low quality, but by laminating it the result is large beams with a great deal of strength – the same as that of a hard wood. So we have achieved the best result with the use of less wood.” This extensive use of wood is not a fire hazard, Malaise is keen to point out, as it has been treated with borax salts.

Green roof investment

Exterior walls and interior partitions are made from brickwork using a brick called Poro+ - made from a mixture of clay, wood pulp and pit coal dust. “In fact only 17 per cent of the materials used in this building are synthetic,” according to Malaise. “The remainder are totally renewable.”

The most striking feature of the Malle factory is the green roof, which covers an area of 6,000 square metres. “We see the green roof as being a replacement for the green surface area we took when we built the factory,” said Malaise. “It has been more expensive than a conventional roof, certainly, but is it necessary to count everything in monetary terms?” It consists of three layers: a sealing film, a layer of mineral pearlite (as insulation) and a substrate with a covering consisting of various types of Sedum plants. “These are from the cactus family so can grow on almost every roof and resist long periods of drought or intensive heat.”

All these elements make for excellent insulation in summer and winter because in the winter the roof offers warmth while in summer the highest temperature ever reached inside is 26 degrees C, even when it is 35 degrees outside. “An added bonus is that we have an enormous range of bird and insect life up on the roof,” Malaise added.

A second ecological factory was built by Ecover in 2007, at Boulogne-sur-Mer in France. By then technology had moved forward so there were even more ecologically aware options that could be incorporated. “For example we capture rain water there and that is used to clean and flush toilets.”

As we tour the factory it becomes clear just how deeply Ecover’s sustainability values run – there is no aspect of the process that has not been analysed and evaluated. A plant-based glue is used to assemble cardboard boxes; cardboard boxes are reused again and again as they travel backwards and forwards between the Ecover factory and the plastic bottle suppliers; boxes are made from 100 per cent recycled material (except for the washing powder boxes, which are 85 per cent recycled because they must be stronger); and 15-litre bag-in-box packaging is being introduced that will reduce cardboard use by 60 per cent.

The plastic bottles used for liquid cleaning products has been closely scrutinised too and the company has announced its decision to use a high density polyethylene (HDPE) from a wholly renewable source. “This material comes from the first company in the world to produce certified ‘green’ polyethylene,” explained Malaise. “Plastics manufacturer Braskem in Brazil has a process using ethanol derived from sugar cane to produce ethylene, which is then converted to polyethylene.”

This new plastic could be up to 75 per cent more greenhouse gas efficient and its use will also have a considerable effect on CO2 emissions from Ecover’s own packaging production process. That is a significant step, because this process currently accounts for up to 45 per cent of the ecological footprint of an Ecover product.

Striving to improve

Energy consumption must also be a prime consideration in such a facility and only 100 per cent ‘green’ energy is purchased by Ecover. All engines and motors used for mixing formulations consume small amounts of energy – one uses the power of two domestic irons for example, and another is the recycled gearbox of a Volvo engine. “Conventional engines use 10 times the amount of power,” Malaise explained. As little as possible is wasted, in fact there are just two grams of solid waste for every kilo of product leaving the factory. And there is a wastewater treatment plant on-site, “which is not difficult for us to run, considering all the ingredients we use are non-toxic”.

Ecover employs its own scientists and has a testing and development lab at the Malle site. Malaise said one of the team’s most exciting recent developments has been an eco-surfactant – this happened last year as a result of collaboration with several European universities. Surfactants are usually produced from petrochemical substances using high temperatures and pressure processes. Most petrochemicals do not biodegrade completely. Ecover’s new process uses an energy efficient and completely biochemical process powered by yeast. “This eco-surfactant gives the same result as synthetic versions,” added Malaise, “but less of it is necessary, and all ingredients are renewable.”

Now recognised as a shining example of what sustainable manufacturing can be, Ecover is still striving to improve on all its processes as technology becomes more advanced and the world becomes more aware of the issues. Peter Malaise’s passion about sustainability is clear, and he feels there is still much to do. “We would now like to have more transparency at every stage of our process. We want more control on raw materials, the ingredients and the processes used to create them. That is very difficult at the moment – to have ultimate traceability in order to eliminate the ‘bad guys’.”

The company is not afraid to exert ethical pressure on its suppliers and continuously questions them in order to obtain the detailed information it expects to be available. “Our philosophy is to take care of the input, then the correct output will logically follow. If the input is not right, then it’s impossible to correct the output.”

Through its Diamond Model Ecover is entirely clear on how it wishes to convey its sustainability message, a stage that many cleaning industry manufacturers have still to reach. “Ecological to us means fitting into the logic of the eco-system,” concluded Malaise. “Absolutely everything we all use on a daily basis has some impact on the environment. What we have always sought to do is minimise that impact."


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