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Green Cleaning: Ecover Succeeds Without Phosphates—Or Petrochemicals

by Michael McCoy
January 24, 2011 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 89, Issue 4

Credit: Ecover
Credit: Ecover

While consumer product giants Procter & Gamble and Reckitt Benckiser were hustling to remove phosphates from their automatic dishwasher (ADW) detergent formulas last year, Ecover was taking it easy. That's because Ecover, a Belgian purveyor of "ecological" cleaning products, had never used phosphates in its detergents.


Green Cleaning: Ecover Succeeds Without Phosphates—Or Petrochemicals

For Ecover, the years of know-how paid off during Consumer Reports’ recent test of phosphate-free ADW detergents. Ecover’s tablets came in sixth of 24, just behind premium versions of P&G’s Cascade and Reckitt’s Finish. The accomplishment is particularly notable because, unlike the big-name competition, Eco­ver’s dishwasher products are made almost entirely from natural or mineral-based ingredients.

The company got its start in 1980 when Frans Bogaerts decided to create a phosphate-free laundry detergent. Dirk Develter, Ecover’s R&D manager, says the company’s dogmatic philosophy in its early days resulted in environmentally sound products that sometimes didn’t clean very well. The approach is different today. “Rather than offer green products that clean, we produce cleaning products that are green,” he says. “Performance expectations come first.”

According to Develter, this approach first took hold more than 15 years ago when Ecover was developing its initial ADW product, a powder. The challenges of being a small company dependent on others for formulation expertise led Ecover to set up its own raw materials development effort.

Today, Develter and his team incorporate a number of sophisticated ingredients into Ecover’s dishwasher tablets. Instead of phosphates, the tablets contain a layered silicate from specialty chemical maker Clariant and the naturally derived chelating agents sodium citrate and sodium gluconate.

In 2009, Ecover removed the last traces of petrochemical-containing surfactants in favor of vegetable- and sugar-based surfactants such as sorbitan sesquioctanoate and capryl glucoside.

Rather than nonbiodegradable polyacrylates, Ecover uses the biodegradable dispersant polyaspartic acid. At present, the polymer is synthetically derived, but Develter says the firm will be switching to a biobased version later this year. That will leave tetraacetylethylene­diamine, a sodium percarbonate bleach activator, as the last petrochemical ingredient in Ecover tablets. Develter says he has launched an R&D project to replace it as well.



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