Green developments in detergent
01 August 2014
Bill Westwater, CEO at Xeros, looks at how the detergents used by the commercial laundering industry have evolved over the years to become more environmentally friendly
Firstly, some reader reassurance: what follows is emphatically not yet another sermon about the desirability of making your business as 'green' as possible. If you have not received and understood that message by now, you are probably beyond redemption.
No, my purpose is rather to highlight how progress in cleaning up one type of product essential to the commercial laundry businesses my own company supplies – detergents – has led to the current position and provides an interesting indication of how the picture may look in the years ahead.
There is no doubt that attitudes and actions of commercial laundry businesses, their customers and legislators over detergents – especially their ingredients – have come a long way since the birth of the environmental movement in the 1970s. This journey essentially began with the discovery that detergents ultimately harmed aquatic eco-systems and wildlife, with their phosphates and surfactants – which help dirt float off garments – damaging fresh and marine waters plus killing fish, dolphins and plants, for example.
Regulation & competition
Since then, regulation has been frequent and progressive. Italy began phasing out phosphates as long ago as the 1980s and Australia followed three years ago, as a staging post on the way to an all-out ban, for example. It is now also a full decade since the European Union introduced regulation requiring biodegradability in all detergents. And in the UK, regulation has reached a level where the next major milestone in the commercial or related domestic market is next January’s ban on laundry cleaning products for the latter containing more than 0.4% of their weight in inorganic phosphate.
This ever-tightening regulation has been fanned by milestones such as the emergence of niche 'green' detergent brands, which, in turn, spurred bigger players into improving their offerings and developing their own environmental advances.
These steps have included manufacturers unveiling detergents which delivered satisfactory cleaning at lower temperatures, recognising that 80% of the energy consumed in laundering is used to heat the water. This, of course, has delivered a significant double-whammy for customers, who were gifted the opportunity to save pounds, as well as the planet.
The acceptance of the concept of the carbon footprint has also influenced detergent manufacturers to produce innovations such as concentrated products, which have simultaneously cut volume, packaging, warehousing and transportation, while delivering significant cumulative savings in carbon dioxide and water.
Engaging the purchaser
One interesting impression gained by reviewing this industry odyssey is how manufacturers have moved from an almost unfettered commercial free-for-all – "buy our product because it washes whiter” - in the days before environmental damage became established fact, to implicit acceptance of a need to engage and educate purchasers.
This approach is adopted in the knowledge that truly effective action has to be undertaken jointly.
Now, laundry businesses are exhorted to use detergents which are readily biodegradable, phosphate-free or made from plant and vegetable-based ingredients, instead of being petroleum-based, for example. This is often justified on the grounds that these products are better not merely for the environment but deliver benefits such as being kinder to skin too.
At Xeros, we are making our own contribution to this drive. Much has been made – in the media and by ourselves – of our commercial laundering system, involving the use of water being largely replaced by reusable and recyclable polymer beads, which deliver hundreds of washes before needing replacement.
However, arguably less attention has been drawn to the fact that our system enables customers to reduce detergent consumption by 50%, compared to that demanded by conventional laundering systems, leading directly to a corresponding drop in effluent produced.
Alongside these are additional environmental benefits, such as our machines requiring upwards of 50% less energy, because clothes do not wallow in a bath of hot, chemical water, they look new for longer, which postpones disposal and its associated ecological issues.
However, how factors such as further scientific breakthroughs of the kind which we are working on and pressure from other producers, consumers and legislators will have changed the detergent picture in, say, 10 years’ time, is a fascinating question to ponder. So is whether progress in the interim will have been faster than before.