Having It All | February 18, 2008 Issue - Vol. 86 Issue 7 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 86 Issue 7 | p. 24
Issue Date: February 18, 2008

Having It All

Chemical makers supplying the detergents industry seek both sales and sustainability
Department: Business | Collection: Sustainability
News Channels: Environmental SCENE
Spinning Green
This poster from Procter & Gamble is emblematic of the SDA meeting's sustainability focus.
Credit: Michael McCoy/C&EN
Spinning Green
This poster from Procter & Gamble is emblematic of the SDA meeting's sustainability focus.
Credit: Michael McCoy/C&EN

ALTHOUGH IT'S LUSH to the point of excess, the Boca Raton Resort & Club in Florida does demonstrate a modicum of environmental responsibility with a card placed on nightstands informing guests that bed sheets won't be removed and washed unless requested.

This card no doubt presented a conundrum to chemical industry executives who were at the resort earlier this month for the Soap & Detergent Association's annual conference: Should they or shouldn't they participate in a program intended to cut consumption of the very products they are there to sell?

But then, the challenges of good environmental behavior have been on the minds of all participants in the cleaning products industry lately. Everyone from the government to retailers to consumers seems to be demanding environmentally sustainable products. SDA President Ernie Rosenberg even proclaimed the conference theme to be "Going Beyond Green."

Still, the chemical companies that supply ingredients to the cleaning products industry see robust sales and environmental stewardship as mutually obtainable. Rather than cut back on surfactants or other cleaning chemicals, they are advising their customers to formulate products with ingredients that have smaller environmental footprints.

Such ingredients were a key theme at the customer-supplier meetings that take place behind the scenes at the SDA conference. A purchasing director at one of the top consumer products companies told C&EN that the suppliers he met with were pitching surfactants and other cleaning product ingredients that come from natural or renewable raw materials, typically vegetable oils. He asked not to be identified because he wasn't authorized to speak to the press.

"I have heard it from every company I met, and I have met with many of them," he said. And his company seems to be listening. In the past, the purchasing director said, his firm would switch between natural and synthetic ingredients purely on the basis of price. "But now, with the emphasis on green and sustainability, we definitely look to materials that are natural," he said.

At the SDA meeting, the unlikeliest of chemical companies were offering cleaning product ingredients made from renewable raw materials. But while they did it gamely enough, company executives often seemed motivated more by customer requests than by a conviction that such ingredients are the environmentally right thing to sell.

For example, promotional material from Shell Chemicals noted that the company offers ethoxylated surfactants produced either with its own synthetic alcohols or with purchased alcohols derived from natural oils. Yet in other venues, Shell executives have been known to point out—and rightly so—that large tropical oil plantations can have a detrimental impact on the environment.

Dow Chemical was at the conference promoting, among other things, its new line of Ecosurf surfactants, which are based on oils from palm kernel and other seeds. Taking a break from meetings, Tony Frencham, general manager of Dow's fabric and surface care business, told C&EN that customers at SDA were asking Dow to " 'bring me anything that can contribute to our sustainability claims.' "

Frencham demurred when asked whether he believes naturally derived ingredients have environmental advantages over the synthetic materials that Dow has long championed. "What we personally think doesn't really matter," he said. What's important, he said, is giving customers what they want and solving their formulation problems.

"The thing we like," Frencham added, "is that all these problems are materials problems." For example, he claimed that the Ecosurf products perform better than many traditional vegetable oil-based surfactants because of the chemistry know-how Dow puts into them. "We're combining renewable sourcing with materials science," he said.

Going beyond traditional surfactant chemistry was a theme for several companies at SDA. Huntsman Corp., for example, said it has developed an alkaline earth-based catalyst called G2 that enables it to directly ethoxylate methyl esters or even the vegetable oils from which they are made. The resulting surfactants, the firm claims, are less expensive than natural alcohol ethoxylates, which typically start with palm kernel oil and then go through several intermediate production steps.

Likewise, the Japanese consumer products company Lion was promoting methyl ester sulfonate (MES) as an advance over linear alkylbenzene sulfonate (LAS), a workhorse synthetic surfactant.

Kazuaki Yamaguchi, associate senior manager in Lion's oleochemical project department, said his firm has been making its Top brand laundry detergent with MES for 17 years. Later this year, following construction of a plant in Malaysia, Lion will introduce MES to the rest of the detergents world. "The 20th century was the century of LAS," Yamaguchi said. "The 21st century will be the century of MES. That's my dream."

MES is made by sulfonating methyl esters derived from fats and oils, an easy-sounding task that is difficult to pull off without ending up with just black goop, Yamaguchi said. Lion literature promotes MES as greener than LAS because MES is virtually "carbon neutral" and as much as 30% less of it can be used.

Indeed, while chemical companies would like to sell environmentally friendly products—and lots of them—they acknowledge that their customers also see decreased raw material use as a path to sustainability—not to mention cost savings. In that case, Frencham acknowledged, "Yes, it's less of our stuff, but at least it's still our stuff."

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