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Business

Cleaning Products Beckon As A Chemical Market

Companies see opportunity to help customers meet sustainability goals

by Michael McCoy
February 18, 2013 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 91, ISSUE 7

Knauss
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Credit: American Cleaning Institute
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Credit: American Cleaning Institute

Donald Knauss and Douglas Baker Jr. are chief executive officers of major cleaning product companies. Both men have ambitious goals for taking sustainability at their companies to a higher level, and both are looking to the chemical industry for help.

The two CEOs made their requests during an executive panel discussion at the American Cleaning Institute’s annual conference in Orlando late last month. Chemical company executives said they were only too glad to assist them with new products and services, many of which are made possible by recent acquisitions.

Knauss is CEO of Clorox, maker of the iconic bleach as well as consumer products such as Green Works household cleaners and Brita water filters. In the past four years, he said, Clorox has reduced solid-waste generation by 30%, water consumption by 15%, energy use by 55%, and greenhouse gas emissions by 15%.

In its annual report, the company portrays the savings as shrinking its environmental footprint and improving its sustainability. But before the business audience in Orlando, Knauss emphasized the millions of dollars in savings these reductions have netted.

Baker
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Credit: American Cleaning Institute
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Credit: American Cleaning Institute

Baker, head of the institutional cleaning goods company Ecolab, was equally blunt about the bottom-line benefits of improved environmental performance. “We serve a lot of industries. I don’t know any company where the goal is to use more water and burn more fuel,” he said. “Sustainable behavior begets economic rewards.”

Improving sustainability was an important part of the closed-door meetings between consumer product companies and their ingredient suppliers that are a hallmark of the cleaning conference.

BASF, the world’s largest chemical company, has been fine-tuning its thinking about sustainability since its 2010 acquisition of Cognis, a purveyor of consumer product chemicals that often are based on renewable raw materials. At its meetings in Orlando, BASF introduced customers to “the trigger point concept,” an approach to sustainability that emerged as it integrated Cognis.

The trigger point concept is a way of looking at a product’s entire value chain from basic raw materials to the consumer, explained Gabriel Tanbourgi, head of BASF’s care chemicals business. By breaking down that chain into its component links, BASF can assist companies in identifying weak points and strengthening them. “It’s a structured way to help our customers define sustainability,” he said.

Although many of the Cognis products are derived from sugars or tropical oils, Tanbourgi was adamant that synthetic ingredients are not necessarily less sustainable than naturally derived ones. Executives from Ashland’s specialty ingredients business expressed a similar view. “Often you will find after a life-cycle analysis that a natural product has a poorer energy profile than a synthetic,” observed Michael Standish, innovation director for home care at Ashland.

Standish and Kevin O’Brien, home care vice president, were at the cleaning institute meeting to talk up the home care market initiative that Ashland launched late last year. Their goal is to serve laundry, automatic dishwasher, and surface care product makers with cellulosic ingredients from Ashland’s Aqualon business and synthetic polymers from International Specialty Products, which Ashland purchased in 2011.

The acquisition created a complete suite of polymers, Standish said, for applications such as dye-transfer inhibition and soil anti-redeposition. Cellulosics, which are derived from renewable raw materials, are just one way to make a product more sustainable, he said. “If you come to Ashland, the green answer is not only cellulosics. It might be a synthetic polymer that reduces water use or helps garments dry faster.”

Taking a different tack, AkzoNobel executives were pushing polymers that they said offer both synthetic performance and renewable content. In 2010, two years after acquiring ICI and its Alco Chemical specialty polymers unit, the company debuted hybrid polymers that are 65% polysaccharide and 35% acrylic copolymer. Then at the conference last month, AkzoNobel came out with second-generation polymers that boast 75% renewable content and, unlike the earlier generation, are readily biodegradable.

Matthias Pfaffernoschke, business director for fabric and cleaning at AkzoNobel, said the polymers’ anti-redeposition and anti-encrustation capabilities should be of interest to U.S. consumer product companies that are struggling with the mid-2010 removal of phosphates from automatic dishwasher detergents. Consumers have not been happy with many of the phosphate-free products, he noted.

Evonik Industries was also pursuing dishwasher detergent makers but with a very different ingredient. The company used the conference to roll out an organomodified silicone surfactant with strong “wetting,” or water spreading, characteristics. When used as part of a rinse aid it can reduce the spots or white residues consumers often encounter after using a phosphate-free dishwasher detergent. Unusual for a silicone, the surfactant is biodegradable, said Steve Turner, director of Evonik’s household care business.

Turner said customers seeking to make biodegradability claims on their labels should be interested in the new surfactant. Speaking more generally, BASF’s Tanbourgi described a hunger among customers he met at the conference for new products and methods, such as the trigger point concept, that help them reach sustainability goals.

He provided an anecdote. “I had a meeting with a customer who said, ‘Starting Feb. 1, my job is going to be sustainability.’ We gave that person our brochure, and that person was very excited.”

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