Biobased Spring Cleaning

Posted in: biobased

Spring is in the air, so it's time for a spring clean. Here are ten of the foremost biobased cleaning products on the market.

Here at NNFCC, spring is in the air: as the daffodils and snowdrops sprout around York (not to mention the tulips sprouting early…) we’re in the mood for a spring clean.

For some everyday applications, finding biobased products can be a difficult (and expensive) experience, but cleaning is not one such application. Thanks to the ever-growing strength of the biobased chemicals sector, it has become much easier for companies to use novel or “drop-in” biobased chemicals in the formulation of cleaning products, allowing said products to become more environmentally friendly. Of course, as far as cleaning products go, the chief sustainability is in fact their energy use: most of them require hot water to work, which is a big energy sink (and if the energy is not clean, a source of carbon emissions). The bioeconomy can still help here, though, as it is hoped that through industrial biotechnology can lead to the development of effective surfactants that show improved performance in cold water.

Nonetheless, there are biobased alternatives for most domestic cleaning products, and many of the brands featured here will have products across several of the applications listed here.

When it comes to biobased cleaning products, one of the foremost brands is Ecover, with over 30 years of experience in the industry. Their ethos focuses on producing cleaning products with emphasis on the “clean” part across the whole manufacturing and supply chain, with a heavy focus on plant-based ingredients in their large range of cleaning products, of which this hand soap is just one. Another company that’s been producing biobased cleaning products for some time (and had market success, as shown by their acquisition by Unilever in 2016) is Seventh Generation, demonstrating that plant-based chemicals can be as effective as their petroleum-based counterparts. The active ingredient in this multi-purpose surface cleaner is thymol, derived from thyme oil, and the product’s website lists the plant origin of all of the ingredients – for many consumers this is a key part of their sustainability engagement with products they buy and use. The first UK-based brand on this list, Ecoleaf’s cleaning products prioritise being both biodegradable and non-hazardous, two properties that biobased chemicals can frequently provide. According to the product’s ingredients list, up to 45% of this washing-up liquid consist of biobased surfactants. While most cleaning products come as just the raw solution, this all-purpose degreaser from ECOS comes in a concentrated form. The cleaner is too strong for general everyday use, and so the company encourages diluting in ten parts water, unless particularly strong solution is required. This allows for much greater efficiency of use on the part of the customer: fewer plastic bottles will be needed, resulting in reduced plastic waste, compounding with the biobased nature of the cleaner itself. It’s not just liquid cleaning products that can be biobased, as demonstrated by Ecozone’s dishwasher tablets. Of course, not all of the ingredients in any cleaner will be entirely biobased (they frequently require mineral solutes, which of course cannot be biobased), and so for many of these companies, the challenge is dovetailing the biobased nature of their solvents with non-hazardous and environmentally-friendly non-organic ingredients. For some applications, it is not just cleaning that is required: in the case of clothes washing, fabric conditioner is also sometimes required in order to make the clothes more comfortable to wear after washing, or to reduce inflammation in sensitive skin caused by fibres in the cloth. Bio-D is yet another company committed to making cleaning products more environmentally friendly and “ethical”. Perhaps the most specialised of the brands on this list, Eco Touch is a company whose products focus on car care. Whilst car washing can be achieved using regular cleaning products, the unique nature of the dirt and oils involved means specialist cleaning products can make the job a lot easier (as anyone who’s tried scrubbing oil from alloy wheels with washing-up liquid will testify…) Eco Touch’s solvents and surfactants are derived from soybean and palm kernel oil, and this “waterless” car wash fluid offers consumers the opportunity to wash their cars without using water, which not only promotes sustainability by reducing water usage, could also be an important product in parts of the world that experience droughts, where water conservation is a part of everyday life. Dry cleaning requires highly specialised non-polar solvents to extract stains without dissolving them, and to avoid any fabric damage that may be caused by water. Organic solvents are often used for this purpose, traditionally derived from petroleum. However, last year, German chemicals manufacturer Kreussler patented the world’s first biobased dry cleaning solvent: a biobased version of the previously successful SOLVONK4 solvent, that retains the performance of the petroleum-based original. However, as far as cleaning applications go, there are likely to be few more demanding than those required in the oil and gas industry. Previous chemicals utilised for cleaning drilling equipment and dealing with spills have been hazardous, and ill-suited for sustainable use. Nanotera have developed biobased surfactants to replace these hazardous chemicals, allowing for the oil and gas industry to (at least in its cleaning efforts) become more environmentally friendly. There is something of an irony in bioeconomy solutions being used in petrochemical sectors, but as long as these sectors continue to exist, then there are bioeconomy innovation opportunities therein, as demonstrated here by Nanotera’s products.
  • Behind the Scenes

Of course, all of these products are complex chemical formulations in their own right, and the manufacturers of the components are not always the cleaner manufactures themselves. Underpinning most cleaning products are surfactants, which allow grease to be mixed with water, and thus washed off. Croda have the widest available range of 100% biobased surfactants available for a variety of applications. However, it is not just surfactants: some applications have a requirement for no foam to be produced by the cleaning process, which could damage surfaces or interrupt the filling of containers, for which Nouryon has recently released a biobased defoamer. Royal COSUN has released a sugar beet-based flow modifier to ensure that cleaning products flow correctly – essential when specific amounts are required for greatest efficiency. As far as active cleaning ingredients themselves go, DuPont have produced enzymes for laundry detergents – this is, in itself, nothing new, but these enzymes are more reliable, and carry the performance of more powerful cleaning agents.

The key message to take away, is that even in a “chemicals-heavy” sector such as cleaning, biobased alternatives are commonplace, and can provide high performance alongside high environmental sustainability.

For more information:

This article was written by Bob Horton, Research Analyst at NNFCC.

You might also be interested in: