Cleaning up the streets

17 June 2022

Keeping our streets clean and looking attractive is arguably one of the most essential tasks across the cleaning sector. As Dr Carolyn Jones observes, it could be said that the cleanliness of our streets is a direct reflection on society. 

THERE ARE numerous reasons for keeping our streets looking clean and respectable. If we need more reasons to keep our country clean; tourists are estimated to have injected a staggering £28.4 billion into the economy in 2019.  Those that flock to the UK are considerably less likely to return if they feel the area is run down. Families with young children don’t want to see offensive graffiti plastered across public areas and local residents don’t want to see their communities looking run-down and unkempt. 

The difficulty with street cleaning is that there are so many elements to consider; graffiti and chewing gum removal, scuff marks, litter and bodily fluids (apologies) are to name but a few, however the list goes on.   

With this in mind, it is completely understandable why this sub-sector of the cleaning industry uses such a wide range and high volume of cleaning products. Multiple products are required for multiple needs - and there are lots of needs. It is critical that the products used are not harmful to the surrounding public, won’t pollute the very area that they are meant to be cleaning, and don’t contribute negatively to wider environmental emissions.

How could a cleaning product risk such a number of consequences? You might be surprised…  

Dangerous chemicals and consequences 

Despite there being a noticeable trend across the board towards more eco-friendly cleaning products, the majority of products manufactured and used still fall under the ‘traditional’ technology banner. These products, and the way they are bottled, can have detrimental effects on both the user and the wider environment. 

Notably, many of the disinfectants used throughout the pandemic contained alcohol, “quats” and chlorine. As well as issues around flammability these chemicals can cause breathing difficulties, gastrointestinal issues, and other wide-ranging ailments. 

Similarly, traditional chemicals such as harsh mineral acids, caustic, aromatic or chlorinated solvents are not only dangerous to the user and the general public, but some can have devastating effects on the environment, specifically aquatic wildlife and their ecosystems. For example, D-Limonene, a widely used ingredient for degreasing and graffiti removal, carries many health hazards such as being “fatal if swallowed” and “sensitising to skin” in addition to being classified as “very toxic to aquatic organisms” combined with having “harmful long-term adverse effects in the aquatic environment”.

Surfactants and solvents are key functional components in cleaning formulations. They are produced on a global, industrial scale, with the starting point for production being petrochemical-derived materials from oil and gas in the case of synthetic solvents and surfactants. Synthetic or petrochemical materials generally have a negative impact on wildlife and are synonymous with high CO2 emissions, which is a massive downside to their widespread use.

Conversely, natural (also known as bio-based or oleo), surfactant and solvent feedstocks are derived from plant oils, mainly coconut and palm kernel. A global demand for renewable and sustainable raw materials has led to increasing levels of research to enhance the performance of naturally derived sustainable raw materials, to use plant-based materials from waste processes in their manufacture and to improve production methods by lowering process temperatures, reducing emissions etc.  Given that surfactants and solvents are the major components of cleaning detergents, inclusion of a naturally-derived sustainable option is pivotal for optimum environmental benefit and improved user safety.

Virgin plastic pollution

A final, and often overlooked, element that can cause damage to the wider environment is packaging materials, namely plastic. Unfortunately this damage is a multi-edged sword. Firstly, the process of manufacturing virgin plastic is something that originates from the petrochemical industry. In fact, it is thought that approximately 4% of the world’s oil production goes into the production of virgin plastic. An astonishingly high number! Another issue concerning virgin plastic is water usage, with the water footprint network claiming it takes nearly 50L of water to make one 5L virgin plastic bottle. 

The most familiar argument surrounding virgin plastic, and the most visual one at that, is the devastating effect that plastic waste has on our wildlife and our oceans. It is well documented that single use plastic is poisoning the oceans and their wildlife, with an estimated 46,000 pieces of plastic in every square mile, weighing up to 269,000 tonnes. As well as killing aquatic life and destroying habitats, there is also concern that microplastics are making their way into the food chain – for both wildlife and humans.    

Lastly, virgin plastics cause further damage to the environment in the form of CO2 emissions and climate change. For every kg of virgin plastic that is manufactured, 6kg of CO2e is released into our atmosphere, a  figure that is 6 times greater than the CO2e released from PCR plastic. With reports in, according to University of California, that the second week of May saw the highest daily average concentration of atmospheric CO2 on record, carbon reduction is something that has to be taken as critically important – and using the right products can have a huge impact on this. 

CO2e reduction through eco and biotechnology 

There are a number of ways that using certain products can help contribute towards a reduction in CO2e. Where and how raw materials are sourced, the need to use less product, and the packaging materials used can all have a substantial impact. 

At BioHygiene, for example, we use a combination of Ecotech and Biotech ingredients, including plant extracts, microbes, enzymes and fermentation extracts, all with favourable ecotoxicity profiles and low human health hazards. Sourcing of raw materials is carried out as far as possible in the UK and Europe, reducing transport related CO2e.

The Ecotech ingredients (cleaning agents, chelating agents, builders, solvents etc.)  used are largely made from renewable, biobased resources (sugar, RSPO palm kernel, coconut oil, carbohydrate feedstocks, molasses, corn or rice) that replace and reduce conventional technologies, petroleum-derived raw materials and hazardous chemicals and achieve a negative CO2e impact (in the case of our lactic acid based sanitiser, produced by the fermentation of plant feedstocks) or significantly  reduced CO2e impact in the case of our Core Cleaning products. Additionally, long-lasting residual cleaning action, reduced cleaning frequency and removing odours at source enables customers to use less product and clean less often resulting in fewer deliveries and a decrease in CO2 emissions from transport. 

Less product also means that fewer bottles are used, reducing overall plastic waste. For instance, most of the plastic bottles used to package our range of products are made using 100% post-consumer resin (PCR), saving a further 85% CO2e. Our outer cartons contain 90% recycled cardboard and are fully recyclable, again resulting in significant CO2e reductions since standard cardboard boxes produce 0.94 kg CO2e / kg, whereas the figure is only 0.68 kg CO2e/kg for recycled cardboard boxes.

Clearly if the products are sourced from the right place, with the right ethics – it is plausible that switching to environmentally friendly and biotech-based cleaning products can seriously reduce CO2 emissions, whilst keeping the risks to public and user health to an absolute minimum. 

Keeping clean

Re-polluting the environment that one is, on the surface, meant to be keeping clean is something that happens all too often across the cleaning industry when harmful chemicals and additives are used. The issue that increases this risk with street cleaning – whether it be removing graffiti or chewing gum – is that the general public are regularly nearby and can be directly affected. 

Additionally, with cars, buses and other motor vehicles already making the atmosphere in many outside areas smoggy and polluted, the last thing we in the cleaning industry want to be doing is actively making it worse, whilst trying to make areas more aesthetically pleasing. 

As we can see, using products with sustainability at their core and a good eco-profile not only prevent the immediate environment from becoming toxic and potentially dangerous, they make a huge difference in the wider ongoing battle against plastic pollution and climate change, with the ability to reduce emissions through both the manufacturing process and once the product is in circulation.    

Dr Carolyn Jones BSc (Hons) PhD is technical director at BioHygiene.

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