A cleaning chemical reaction

23rd of May 2018
A cleaning chemical reaction
A cleaning chemical reaction

We are constantly being told about the damage that chemical products can cause to our health, safety and the environment. But what are customers’ reactions to such reports? Are they turning away from chemical cleaning products, or are they continuing to use the same formulations they have always done? Ann Laffeaty reports.

Cleaning chemicals have received a mixed press over the past few years.  Concerns about their impact on the environment have prompted many companies to offer alternative solutions that utilise deionised water, microfibre, steam or UV light instead.

Meanwhile, a number of damaging reports have recently highlighted concerns about the effects of chemical products on our health.

In September 2017 a study carried out by the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research revealed that exposure to bleach, disinfectant and chemical sprays appeared to increase the chance of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease by 32 per cent. Researchers tracked 55,000 nurses who had been exposed to fumes over an eight-year period and reported that 663 of the nurses had later been diagnosed with COPD, a condition that is usually associated with smoking.

In February 2018 a second study carried out at the University of Bergen revealed that lung function tended to decline significantly among cleaning workers and anyone else who regularly cleaned their homes using chemical products. The study also found asthma to be four per cent more prevalent in cleaning staff than in the general population.

So there has been an increasing trend to offer cleaning solutions that remove or reduce the need for chemicals. But are customers buying into this trend? Are they increasingly seeking safer, more sustainable products - or are they ambivalent about what they use as long as their chosen detergent or disinfectant achieves the required result?

“The answer to that depends on who you ask,” says Werner & Mertz sustainability manager Chris Lüning. “The contractor who needs to win a tender where price is the only criterion may be forced to see it that way. However, there is a growing trend in public procurement to add more criteria such as mandatory Cradle to Cradle certification. This is often restricted to municipal public tenders but the numbers of such examples are rising.”

Circular economy

He adds that the circular economy has become a key development project for the European Union. “The EU is investing billions in a framework that will have an impact on waste management in the cleaning sector,” he said. “And if you ask a contractor’s corporate customers they might see the need to enhance their sustainability profile for the benefit of clients.

“So the circular economy is playing a role both in terms of company image and as a way of distinguishing individual players in the market.”

Werner & Merz has long been a pioneer of circular designs both in terms of formulations and packaging, says Lüning. “We have 58 eco-certified products of which 37 are Cradle to Cradle certified,” he said. “This was achieved by having a clear developmental guideline based
on our own principles rather than on outside criteria.

“It is becoming much more relevant to offer a wide range of certified products and to prove an effective approach towards sustainability in order to stay credible.”

According to Lüning, many chemicals that are generally considered harmful can easily be replaced with alternatives that remove the need for classic chemistry without any loss of function. “However, there may still be a demand for some chemical products in situations where time is a relevant cost factor,” he said. “But that will depend on the keenness of policy-makers and corporate customers to improve their socioecological impact.”

And he adds public pressure is increasingly being applied to policy-makers regarding the use of chemicals. “There has been a natural trend for many industries with a focus on quality management to reduce the harmful effects of their products,” he said.

Communications and trade marketer for Greenspeed Floor Loos believes that the market for traditional cleaning products has been stagnating in Europe over the past 10 years. ”The increasing use of microfibre plus the adoption of strong concentrates and better dosing systems have all played a role in this,” she said. “And changes in customer demand plus the economic crisis have also
played a part.

“Some niche markets including those for ecological detergents made from plant-based ingredients have shown a clear upward trend. And ecological washing and cleaning agents that hold the EU Ecolabel or other certification are no longer a trend but are becoming much more mainstream.”

Sustainability and ecology

Sustainability and ecology are no longer unfamiliar concepts to the customer, she says. “These topics have been receiving increasing amounts of attention,” she said. “It is a general trend that the impact of chemicals on the environment is becoming more widely considered. In fact sustainability has become the new norm in the cleaning industry.”

The topic of health is also gaining importance according to Loos, with the short-term health effects of cleaning products being the main focus over the past few years.

“As a result there have been notable innovations in safety such as the development of safer packaging and the manufacture of less corrosive or irritant products,” she said. “Efforts to develop more ergonomic systems are also related to this direct, known influence on health. However, the long-term effects of cleaning have been underexposed and underestimated until now.”

She cites a recent study into the health risks of cleaning carried out in Belgium by Laura Van den Borre. The study examined the differences in the cause-specific mortality of cleaners, manual workers and non-manual workers based on 250,000 deaths between 1991-2011. The study revealed that deaths due to pulmonary and cardiovascular diseases were significantly higher among cleaners than in the general population -  concluding that harmful cleaning agents were among the probable causes.

According to Loos, growing concern about the long-term health effects of chemicals on cleaners will increasingly feature on the agenda.  “The Laura Van den Borre study revealed that cleaners tend to die faster than other manual workers, and that should not be the case,” she said. “Greenspeed does not only want to focus on environmental care and the short-term effects on health and safety but also on the longer-term effects – and we are asking the cleaning sector in general to have this ambition too.”

Health and safety

Greenspeed offers Cradle to Cradle certified cleaning products that are said to contain no harmful substances. The company also offers training on how to use them.

3M’s marketing communications manager María Gomez agrees that an increasing number of customers are showing concern for health and safety. “As a result they are seeking more non chemical-based cleaning solutions,” she said. The company offers floor cleaning and restoration systems designed to be used with water alone.

“I think the industry will phase out the use of chemicals as much as possible in favour of new detergents and cleaning agents developed with natural components,” she said. “The important thing is that they are green for the environment and safe for end-users.”

Optimum results

There is a clear market trend towards increased transparency around chemistry and all its impacts on the environment agrees Ecolab’s marketing communications manager Gaëlle Petit. “At the same time there is no clear, universal definition of product sustainability,” she adds. “In this climate, hygiene suppliers are well placed to help their customers to manage their operational impact by offering the right mix of products, training and dispensing systems.”

Ecolab’s customers are keen to balance optimum cleaning results with low environmental impact, she says. “Environmental and human health impacts were both highlighted as priorities in our recent European customer research,” said Petit. “This closely aligns with the types of inquires we have received from our salesforce over the past year.

“We constantly monitor and review market trends so that we can offer our customers solutions that meet their business needs while also being mindful of their operational impact.”

According to Petit the topic of product sustainability is maturing.  “Sustainability is no longer an afterthought: it is becoming integrated into the design of products and into everyday business processes right from the beginning,” she said. “Providing a special line of ‘green’ products is no longer sufficient.

“We have seen an increased desire for transparency regarding health, safety and the environmental impact of chemicals over the past few years. The industry is proactively managing ingredients in
order to reduce their impact on the environment and it is also continually working on innovations that maximise cleaning performance.”

Ecolab offers a range of eco-labelled products supplied in concentrated formats to reduce packaging and transport requirements. The company also offers advice and training on sustainable cleaning and gives customers tips on improving their cleaning results while also reducing energy consumption.

“Sustainability is more than checking a box on one attribute or another for us - we are dedicated to making a positive impact by advancing the science of cleaning to serve a growing global population while protecting the natural environment,” said Petit.

And this approach also makes good business sense, adds Werner & Merz’s Chris Lüning. “Any manufacturer with an understanding of the public interest in products that are safer, healthier and more sustainable will succeed in the long term,” he said. “Market demand for this already exists - and it will continue to thrive.”


Related Articles

Our Partners

  • ISSA Interclean
  • EFCI
  • EU-nited