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The cleaning industry is awash in change

Trends influencing household product makers transcend politics of the moment

by Michael McCoy
February 13, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 7

Illustration containing bubbles with topical images floating inside.
Credit: Shuttestock/C&EN

You’d think executives at a conference for a highly regulated industry would be in a pretty good mood, given that the President of the U.S. recently pledged to reduce manufacturing regulations by 75%. And at the annual convention of the American Cleaning Institute (ACI) in Orlando late January, they were.

But attendees also were aware that the direction their industry is taking—toward more sustainable, often biobased, products—is not going to change. Thus, chemical company executives, there to market their ingredients to customers in the consumer goods industry, reveled in the prospect of fewer restrictions. At the same time, they knew their task was to help those customers sell products to a public that is increasingly environmentally aware.

At an issues briefing on the third day of the conference, Steve Christenson of the industrial service firm Ecolab cautioned attendees not to get too giddy at the prospect of a more lenient federal government. “The risk of going too far is backlash,” he said, noting that that last thing industry wants is for a patchwork of state laws to arise in the absence of federal regulation.

Corporations are also watching. On the same day that Christenson spoke, the retailer Target announced a series of initiatives aimed at disclosing consumer product ingredients and at removing certain chemicals—including phthalates, parabens, and formaldehyde—altogether from the products it sells.

Typical of the attendees at the conference was Roger Sumner, business manager for ethanolamines at the chemical maker Ineos. A 30-year veteran of the chemical industry, Sumner said he thinks regulations have gone too far and that he is encouraged by the new tone in Washington on that front.

Yet Sumner was at the meeting to promote products intended to help customers meet a regulation. Monoethanolamine (MEA) and triethanolamine (TEA) are used in many laundry detergents and hard-surface cleaners as solvents and chelating agents. But they often contain small amounts of diethanolamine (DEA). California’s Proposition 65 lists DEA as a carcinogen and says products containing it must be labeled as such.

Customers were beginning to move away from ethanolamines, Sumner explained, so Ineos revamped the distillation section of its Louisiana ethanolamine plant to create new grades of MEA and TEA with undetectable levels of DEA. Seven or eight Ineos accounts have converted to the new grade, he said.

Cleaning product makers are changing their products even in the absence of a regulatory driver. Xiaolan Wang, general manager of Evonik Industries’ household care business, which makes ingredients for household products, said that message came through stronger this year than past years in discussions with her customers about the ingredients they buy.

Evonik has ­responded by starting industrial-scale production of sophorolipids, a family of surfactants found in nature. An Evonik fermentation facility in Slovakia is making sophorolipids for customers in the personal care, household care, and industrial cleaning industries. In addition to their natural origins, the surfactants offer good oil removal and high tolerance by the skin, Wang said.

The voice of the consumer has become quite strong.
Loan Mansy, general manager for surface chemistry, akzoNobel

Executives from BASF, the world’s largest chemical company, were also at the ACI convention talking about how their broad portfolio can help customers create greener products. In their view, though, green doesn’t necessarily mean biobased. Even though BASF is largely a synthetic chemical maker, it still won a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency award last year for promoting safer consumer products chemistry, noted Daniele Piergentili, head of the firm’s North American home and personal care business.

He pointed to methylglycinediacetic acid (MGDA), a BASF chelating agent that has replaced phosphates as a cleaning ingredient in U.S. automatic dishwasher detergents. The push to remove phosphates from the detergents, instigated by several U.S. states, is now spreading to Europe.

Seeing a good thing, AkzoNobel also launched production of MGDA last fall. Thom Stephens, sales and marketing director for the firm’s industrial chelates business, explained that AkzoNobel had initially bet on a different phosphate replacement, glutamic acid diacetic acid (GLDA), some 10 years ago.

However, the company didn’t anticipate the shift in the dishwasher detergent market to single-dose products, in which GLDA’s hydroscopic nature can cause clumping. The company has caught up, and customers are happy to have a second source of supply, Stephens said.

Concurrent with their drive for more sustainable wares, cleaning product makers still want to wow consumers with cool effects, such as long-lasting fragrance in laundered clothing.

That can be delivered by encapsulating fragrances in laundry detergents or fabric softeners so they carry through the wash and onto the garment. The challenge today is that yesterday’s formaldehyde-based fragrance encapsulates may not cut it for retailers such as Target.

Thus, Linda Foltis, vice president for care, beverage, and agriculture R&D at Ashland, was at the meeting promoting an acrylate-polymerization-based fragrance encapsulation technology that is formaldehyde-free. The new material can be tuned to release fragrance quickly or slowly or as a result of friction, she said.

Robert Nolles, director of biobased products marketing and sales at the Dutch food processor Cosun, was also talking up a material that can help laundry detergents deliver fragrance. Based on a cellulosic microfiber extracted from beet pulp, the Cosun encapsulate is an alternative to patented hydrogenated castor oil technology used by Procter & Gamble in Tide Pods packets and other detergents, he noted.

Nolles, a Dutchman living in California, has been following U.S. politics with ­interest. But in the end, he doesn’t expect the change of administration in Washington to have an effect on his company’s business much.

Likewise, Loan Mansy, general manager for surface chemistry at AkzoNobel, has watched traditional regulators get overshadowed by big retailers such as Target and Walmart as influencers of cleaning product ingredient choices. Now, the general public is joining the fray as people make their opinions known via social media, Mansy explained.

“The voice of the consumer has become quite strong,” she said. 



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