|Ann Laffeaty traces the evolution of chemical cleaning products. An increasing number of today’s raw materials are plant-derived.|
Cleaning solutions - a chemical change - Ann Laffeaty traces the evolution of chemical cleaning products in the light of tightening legislation and a greater emphasis on sustainability and safety. There was at time when the only requirement of a chemical detergent solution was that it should be capable of cleaning the item for which it was intended. But that all changed when the health, safety and sustainability implications of cleaning products began to be monitored more closely. For example, we discovered that Paradichlorobenzen - formerly used in urinal blocks – was a carcinogen. We also found out that Alkylphenol ethoxylates, a synthetic surfactant found in detergents, had an oestrogenic effect and could disrupt hormones in fish.
And as our concern for factors such as health, safety and sustainability began to grow, new legislation was introduced. This has resulted in some dramatic changes to the chemical cleaning industry over the past 20 years. But are today’s safer, more environmentally-friendly products as effective as their predecessors? And do manufacturers and customers ever mourn the passing of yesterday’s more hazardous products?
CEBE Reinigungschemie manager Dr Jan Reimers confirms that today’s cleaning chemicals are generally more sustainable, safer and easier to use than their counterparts of 20 years ago. “Both the manufacturer and the end-user have become more sensitised to this issue,” he said. “It is not only legislation that puts the industry under pressure; end-users are also demanding safer and more sustainable products. This has led to changes in formulations and higher levels of training on product use along with greater transparency on the part of the manufacturers where hazardous ingredients are concerned.”
He says that many raw materials have recently been replaced with more environmentally-friendly, less hazardous alternatives. “In addition many products have become simpler - not only in their formulation but also in their use.” However, he cites niche products as an exception to this rule. “Though even where specialty products are concerned the trend is to improve efficiency while also minimising hazard.”
According to Reimers, these changes in the industry have largely been determined by legislation. “If one considers, for instance, the changes in concentration thresholds for declaring a product as an irritant to the eyes, 20 years ago that threshold was generally a concentration of 20 per cent,” he said. “Today this has been reduced to one per cent in some instances.”
He adds that in some cases, changes in formulation have led to poorer performance. “This is the compromise that has to be made for sustainable development,” he said. “In other cases new raw materials have been discovered which have led to improved performance and sometimes also better environmental degradability.”
Change in behaviour
But is there anything about the chemical solutions of the past that either Reimers or his customers miss today? “I can think of one thing that may be missed: Alkylphenolethxylates which, as non-ionic surfactants go, are still unsurpassed in many fields and are still in use in some industrial applications,” he said. “However their impact on the environment is substantial which means that phasing them out and prohibiting their use with only a few exceptions was the right thing to do.”
He describes surfactant-free systems for carpet cleaning – such as the company’s own Spray Brite product – to be among the recent ‘game-changers’ in the chemicals industry. “The development of green labels has also led to a change in market behaviour, particularly since the phasing out of solvents in many products has led to them being more user-friendly.” Dr Schnell Chemie’s marketing executive Franz Felbermeir agrees with Reimers that there is a trend towards developing products with a broader application window, such as general-purpose
“Customers want to use one product to clean a range of different pollutants from a variety of surfaces,” he said. “At the same time, very specific products are being developed for specialist purposes such as the cleaning of marble, for example. This means that users can rely on a narrow range of products that resolve 90 per cent of standard issues while having a second range of highly specialised products that deal with the remaining cleaning challenges.”
He says that today’s focused research on coming up with systems designed to improve efficiency through the use of better technical equipment - such as microfibre cloths, for example - has led to more effective cleaning. “On the other hand, restrictions in the use of certain chemicals such as some dangerous organic solvents has left the industry looking for replacements for what were highly effective cleaning chemicals in the past,” he said.
Like Reimers he feels that today’s cleaning chemicals are generally more sustainable, safer and easier to use. “As soon as there is an understanding of the potential risks involved with certain substances the trend is to substitute these very quickly,” he said. “Anything that helps our customers to become more efficient in what they do is always a welcome idea. And if a product helps our customer to do a better job, that can be translated into a monetary advantage.”
But does he miss anything about yesterday’s chemical solutions? “Superficially one could complain about the fact that some highly effective surfactants such as Nonylphenoles are no longer available,” he said. “However, these substances have a highly detrimental effect on the environment so the fact that they are no longer in use is overall good news. And this has helped us to keep the focus on seeking better and more sustainable ways to formulate new products.” He describes the company’s Milizid sanitary cleaner as one of Dr Schnell Chemie’s most revolutionary products. “It is our best-selling product and it stays on the top of our list through constant evolution.”
Global marketing director of Diversey Care Lars Bo Madsen describes the changes in the chemical industry over the past 20 years as both significant and positive. “Changes have occurred due to regulatory introductions such as the Biocidal Products Directive, REACH, and latterly by GHS,” he said. “There has also been a move towards super-concentrated products that directly deliver less chemical and that entail less packaging, less storage, a lower carbon footprint and maximum safety for end-users.
“Meanwhile, closed systems and packaging with dosing control has been introduced to ensure accuracy, simplicity and safety. And end-users are increasingly requesting products with labels such as the Swan or Ecolabel.”
When asked whether today’s products were more effective than earlier versions he responds: “What is meant by ‘effective’? Does it mean that a product removes more dirt and soil, cleans more quickly, does so at a lower temperature, uses a less concentrated solution or cleans with less scrubbing? I don’t think we tolerated more dirt 20 years ago so the question really boils down to the last four.”
He refers to the Sinner’s circle that sets out the four cleaning parameters of chemistry, mechanics, temperature and time. “Only when all four factors are harmonised can an effective cleaning result be achieved,” he said.
According to Madsen, super-concentrated cleaning products such as his company’s Diversey Smartdose system have changed the market considerably. This is a dosing platform for super-concentrated cleaners and disinfectants that is said to deliver larger amounts of cleaning solution, reducing plastic use and transport costs.
But what do Diversey Care’s customers miss about yesterday’s chemical products? “Maybe it was the easier decision process – does it work and is it the right price?” said Marsden. “Nowadays the question: ‘Is it sustainable?’ has been added to the decision process. “But to be honest there is little about chemical products of the past that either Diversey Care or our customers miss today since chemical products have generally become much easier and safer to use.”
The company is launching a range of products containing plant-based actives from renewable sources. Most of the SURE range of products are derived from by-products from the agro-food industry and originate from crops such as sugar beet, maize, straw bran, wheat bran and coconut.
“In the future I envisage that holistic green cleaning will become more prevalent,” said Marsden. “Green cleaning has already become more formalised in North America where it is accredited through schemes from the US Green Building Council’s LEED suite of accreditations and ISSA’s CIMS-GB scheme.”
Legislation has been the main driver for recent chemical industry changes says Dr Jim Taylour, head of research and development at Holchem Laboratories. “The chief focus in terms of legislation has been on personal and environmental safety,” he said. “The chemicals industry is relatively highly regulated and as new knowledge comes to light, regulations change and the industry reacts in order to ensure it remains legal. “In addition the industry often pre-empts legislation and through codes of practice and industry guidelines recommends voluntary restrictions or a change of use for certain chemicals.”
As an example he quotes a voluntary ban in 1995 on the use of Alkylphenol ethoxylates and Nonylphenol ethoxylates in detergents based on evidence that these compounds were endocrine disruptors. The ban was brought in before the legislation had been put into place.
Taylour echoes Marsden’s view that an increasing number of today’s raw materials are plant-derived. “An example of this can be seen in the use of palm oil-derived surfactants,” he said. “However, this issue has been complicated by considerations about the sustainability of palm oil production.”
Holchem offers a range of chemicals including its Perbac OPD open plant disinfection solution. This is claimed to be a safe and effective disinfectant for use on open surfaces without the strong acrid smell issues associated with peracetic acid disinfectants.
Like Marsden, Taylour feels that an increasing trend towards the use of super-concentrates has further changed the face of the industry. “This is particularly the case in the hospitality and facilities management sectors where the traditional ready-to-use toilet cleaner has been replaced by a thicken-on-dilution system developed using novel surfactant chemistry,” he said. Holchem’s Optimum Toilet Cleaner Concentrate is an example of this.
Taylour believes that industry regulations will continue to change and shape the chemicals sector. “As legislation such as BPR, REACH and the Detergent Directive matures, detergent and disinfectant suppliers will continue to drive the development of their products to ensure that they remain legal, cost-effective and safe both for personnel and for the environment,” he said. ustainability and safety.