Sustainability - the flip side

5th of November 2019
Sustainability - the flip side
Sustainability - the flip side

Chemical products are often criticised people who claim that natural alternatives – or water alone – are more sustainable. And paper-based consumables also attract condemnation from those who fear for our forests. But are manufacturers of these products being judged unfairly, asks ECJ?

Sustainability is becoming more complicated all the time as we strive to strike a perfect balance between people, planet and profit.

Everything we produce and consume now comes under scrutiny. Was it made ethically, from responsibly-sourced materials and by well-paid adults? How far did the raw materials travel in order to reach the production site? And at the end of its life, is the product recyclable - and what effect will it ultimately have on the planet?

In the cleaning and hygiene sector it is the paper and chemical industries that are often singled out for criticism. For example, a widely-covered news story recently claimed toilet paper was becoming less sustainable all the time because a lower percentage of the world’s toilet tissue now comes from recycled paper. The article implied that it was our love of soft tissue products – along with the irresponsibility of paper manufacturers – that were combining to result in trees being felled to create virgin fibres.

But such statements are often misleading, says Essity’s communications director Reneé Remijnse. And they also miss the point. “When managed properly, trees are a great renewable resource which means paper from virgin fibre should not be not considered unsustainable,” she said. “It is easy to understand people’s concerns over paper-making since we all love forests and are aware of the critical role they play in the health of our planet.

“So it is incumbent on paper manufacturers, suppliers and environmental organisations to communicate the many benefits of responsible forestry such as active forest management and replanting.”

Essity uses both recycled fibres and fresh fibre from certified forests in its tissue products.  When producing virgin fibres, the company uses mainly those parts of the tree that have been left behind from other purposes such as timber production. And the fibre used to make Tork products is said to come from responsibly-managed forests where replanting constantly takes place.

Essity’s clients have no problem with the fact that virgin fibres are used to make some of their products, according to Remijnse.  “Our customers understand that products made from recycled fibre and fresh fibre are both sustainable options, and we work with them to help them find the best solution for them – one that aligns with their sustainability policy,” she said.

Entire lifecycle

According to Remijnse it is important to consider the entire lifecycle of a product when assessing its sustainability. “And in any case, sustainability is not the only driver to decision-making - customers and end users also care about factors such as hygiene and ease of use,” she said. “And at the end of the day they will choose the product that best fits their needs.”

Recycled toilet paper may sound like a more sustainable option – but the picture is no longer clear-cut, says Metsä Tissue managing director Mark Dewick. “The fact is, it is becoming increasingly difficult to source paper for recycling because offices use less of it every year,” he says.

“Manufacturers are therefore obliged to produce more fresh fibre products in order to meet demand.”

Contrary to reports, this does not involve felling mature trees or clearing forests, he adds. “Our forests grow faster than they are being used and each harvested tree is replaced by four seedlings,” he said. “Every part of the tree is utilised: around 60 per cent of it is employed to make sawn timber and wood products while only 25 per cent is turned into pulp. And the rest – the bark, branches and treetops – is used to make bioenergy products.”

Metsä currently uses a mixture of fresh, recycled and mixed fibres to cater for market needs. “However, we plan to increase our use of fresh fibres in future because we recognise the ongoing scarcity and quality issues relating to recycled fibres,” said Dewick.

Also often portrayed as an industry “bad guy” is the chemicals sector – though this is usually by manufacturers of natural or chemical-free alternatives. However, today’s stringent rules concerning the use of hazardous chemicals are making them safer all the time.

And the fact is, all cleaning systems have their merits and downsides according to Greenspeed marketing manager Floor Loos. “There are certainly times where alternatives to chemicals such as ionised water and high pressure systems can be an efficient way of cleaning,” she said. “However, high pressure systems cannot be used on all types of surfaces while ionised water is incapable of removing all types of dirt and soil.

“The big advantage of chemistry is its flexibility and the fact mixtures can be fine-tuned to deal with all types of dirt, surfaces and environments.”

She says today’s chemical manufacturers are increasingly expanding their scope from that of simply reducing their impact on the environment to fitting into a real circular economy.

“Many companies are investing heavily in improving the sustainability of their products and production processes,” she said. “I believe this has really changed the traditional image of chemical manufacturing as an unsustainable industry. It’s certainly the case in the cleaning sector.”

She claims the environmental impact of products is becoming an increasingly important consideration for today’s customers. “In the cleaning industry, ecological products with environmental certification are the new norm – and there have been notable innovations to make them safer both for people and for the environment,” said Loos.

Greenspeed offers highly concentrated formulas that are said to reduce packaging waste by at least 20 per cent compared with conventional chemical products.

“We use green chemistry to create efficient cleaning products from natural ingredients and minerals,” said Loos. “These are sourced locally - preferably from renewable resources. And our cleaning agents are produced using renewable energy and have a minimal impact on the environment throughout their lifecycle while also being biodegradable.”

She says Greenspeed detergents contain neither harmful toxic substances nor volatile organic compounds. “This means they have a minimal impact on human health.”

Chemical companies are not generally portrayed as the cleaning industry’s “villain of the piece” as far as Kärcher’s head of detergents development Frank Ritscher is concerned.

Informed decision making

“Our customers are very satisfied with our products and give us feedback to this effect,” he said. “Also, we only use cleaning agents that actually increase cleaning efficiency. Plus our cleaning agents are as biodegradable as toothpaste - and who cleans their teeth without toothpaste?”

He claims that cleaning with chemicals can often be the most sustainable solution available. “The more effective a cleaning technique happens to be with the aid of an environmentally compatible cleaning agent, the more water and energy you can save,” he points out.

Kärcher invests heavily in sustainability and continually revises its formulas and raw materials, replacing them with more sustainable alternatives when appropriate. According to Ritscher, cleaning solutions based on ionised water cannot compete with chemicals in terms of cleaning performance.

“Water-insoluble dirt such as grease and oil needs to be removed using surface-active substances and emulsifiers – and these can be of a natural origin,” he said. Kärcher offers highly concentrated chemicals in 100 per cent recyclable packaging.

Diversey’s customers also understand how its products make their cleaning operations more efficient and sustainable, according to sustainability and CSR executive director Daniel Daggett.

However, he adds attitudes to the chemical industry tend to be mixed. “People may not want chemical cleaning products - but they do want sanitary places in which to live, work, operate and receive healthcare,” he said.  “And they also want their food and drink to be safe.  So people who understand the purpose of cleaning products don’t see us as the ‘bad guy’.“

According to Daggett, chemical products continue to evolve due to regulation, innovation and changing customer demand.  “Bio-based products are gaining popularity for the real or perceived benefits they offer to people and the environment, while restricted substance lists continue to grow and target new chemicals that may have safety questions, data gaps or that might simply be wrongly associated with other substances of concern,” he said.

“Another trend in cleaning is a reduction in the use of chemicals due to the fact that tools, equipment and technology are making cleaning processes more efficient.  The amount of product required to clean today is lower than it was in the past and this trend will continue driven by financial, social and environmental factors.”

So paper and chemical companies fully understand the perception of their products by some sections of society. And if anything this is prompting them to work even harder to come up with new sustainable solutions and to reduce the environmental footprint of their products and processes.

For example, Essity recently announced a major investment in a pulping facility in Germany that will enable tissue products to be made from wheat straw. “This process uses significantly less water and energy than when using certified fresh wood fibre and turns an unused agricultural by-product into a new tissue fibre source,” said the company’s Renee Remijnse.

Essity is also reducing the amount of waste produced from paper towels via Tork PaperCircle, a scheme that transports customers’ used towels to local mill and recycles them into new products.
Meanwhile, Metsä is developing its mills to enable them to use even more advanced technologies to manufacture fresh fibre products. The company is committed to ensuring that its mills are all fossil-free by 2030.

And Diversey uses a sustainability scorecard for all its products to identify additional ways in which environmental stewardship can be integrated.

“Every cleaning solution has an environmental footprint as well as a raft of safety, regulatory and cost issues that need to be taken into consideration,” said Daggett. “Customers simply need to be able to make an informed decision.”


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