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Consumer Products

Why chemical makers love the cleaning product industry

Innovation, fast-paced change, and products that go down the drain give the sector its enduring appeal

by Michael McCoy
February 16, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 7

A photo of Ralph Schweens, president of BASF Care Chemicals.
Credit: American Cleaning Institute
Ralph Schweens, president of BASF Care Chemicals, welcomes attendees to his firm's reception at the cleaning convention.

At the American Cleaning Institute’s annual convention, held late last month at the Grande Lakes resort in Orlando, Florida, executives’ days brim with one meeting after another with customers, business partners, and the occasional journalist.

But the nights at the ACI convention are different, reserved for dinners with clients and lavish parties hosted by chemical companies. On the Monday evening of this year’s meeting, Oxiteno, a Brazilian newcomer to the US, hosted a music lounge. On Tuesday, BASF held its annual outdoor bash featuring four wines chosen from the company’s million-bottle cellar in Germany.

On Wednesday, the cleaning institute hosted its usual cocktail hour, featuring live music, followed later in the evening by Evonik Industries’ annual dessert party. And on Thursday, Sasol took over one of the lobbies of the resort for a bayou-themed party—a nod to the huge complex it is opening in Lake Charles, Louisiana.

Big chemical companies splurge on entertainment because the cleaning product industry—which they serve from corporate divisions dubbed care chemicals or home and personal care—is important to them. Companies like Procter & Gamble, Henkel, and Unilever are a steady outlet for specialty chemicals because many of their products go, literally, down the drain. And these consumer product firms are eager to purchase new ingredients that help make their products gentler on the environment.

It’s not surprising, then, that when chemical companies decide to restructure or exit underperforming businesses, they rarely touch care chemicals. Evonik recently sold its methacrylate plastics business. BASF is getting out of pigments and construction chemicals. Clariant is selling its business in additive concentrates for polymers. But all these big players are holding fast to chemicals for the home care industry.

Dow beefed up its care chemical portfolio in 2016 when it acquired full control of Dow Corning, noted Eric Peeters, global business director for home and personal care at Dow. The move combined Dow’s surfactants and other cleaning product ingredients with Dow Corning’s silicones for fabric and laundry applications.

Dow executives recognized the value of the enlarged home care portfolio throughout Dow’s merger and subsequent demerger with DuPont, Peeters said. Other businesses were shuffled between the two companies, but Dow held on to home care.

“This industry was given a lot of attention in the sense that it stayed intact inside Dow,” Peeters said. And spending on innovation stayed high, with an emphasis on helping customers make their cleaning products friendlier to the environment, he added. He pointed, for example, to a new antifoam additive that helps people in developing countries who wash clothes by hand reduce their consumption of rinse water.

Nouryon, the former AkzoNobel chemical business, is putting new emphasis on care chemicals now that it’s an independent company. On Jan. 1, as part of a reorganization to become more market facing, the firm launched a home and personal care specialty business. It’s led by Suzanne M. Carroll, who joined Nouryon late in 2019 after many years with Rohm and Haas, Dow, and DuPont.

Carroll said she took the job because she relishes the opportunity to apply chemistry to making the cleaning product industry more sustainable. “When I got the call from Nouryon, I was intrigued, and when they said the job was with home and personal care, I was excited to join the team,” she said. “I love being in an industry where we can make a difference.”

Carroll also likes being in an industry in which customers launch new products more quickly than in markets such as construction or auto manufacturing. Often, she noted, the advance in the new product is an improvement in its sustainability. “I see great potential because so much change is happening,” Carroll said, “and the change is reliant on chemistry.”

Executives at BASF also like the cleaning product industry’s combination of fast pace and greener ingredients. “Life cycles for products are becoming shorter and shorter,” said Daniele Piergentili, vice president of BASF’s home and personal care business in North America. “It’s an industry that fits well with our capabilities. We thrive in this situation.”

Sometimes regulation drives the change. New York State, for example, recently passed a law prohibiting the sale of household cleaning and personal care products containing more than 2 ppm of 1,4-dioxane after 2022. 1,4-Dioxane is a likely carcinogen that forms during the manufacture of certain surfactants and emulsifiers.

At the conference, BASF announced an expanded line of ingredients to help customers meet the deadline. And Piergentili noted that many customers will want to beat the deadline. “The deadline is in 2022,” he said, “but media coverage is shaping the consumer impression now.”

Evonik, host of the much-loved dessert party, is another fan of the care chemical sector, said Tammo Boinowitz, senior vice president of the firm’s care solutions business. “It’s close to the consumer, it’s generally less cyclical than other industrial markets, and the market is hungry for innovation, which is attractive if you have the right innovation,” he said.

For Evonik, one such innovation is rhamnolipids, a new family of biobased surfactants produced via fermentation. Late last year, Unilever announced that Quix, a dishwashing liquid it markets in Chile, is the world’s first household cleaning product to use rhamnolipids. Evonik has started engineering for what it says will be a world-scale rhamnolipid facility.

For Boinowitz, rhamnolipids encapsulate what’s attractive about the cleaning product industry: they allow Evonik to work with important customers on new-to-the world, environmentally friendly products. “For Evonik and for Unilever, it’s a very significant project,” he said.

Better serving the North American cleaning product industry is one reason Oxiteno built a $200 million–plus alkoxylation facility in Pasadena, Texas, said Cristiane Canto, head of the firm’s global home and personal care business. The plant opened in 2018 and today is making about 60 products. “Home and personal care is huge in the US, and it’s growing fast. It’s also very dynamic,” she said.

Not to be outdone by Evonik, Oxiteno revealed its own Latin American collaboration with Unilever—for a concentrated version of Unilever’s Omo liquid laundry detergent. Users dilute the concentrate with water in a bigger, permanent bottle. The product balances the Latin American consumer’s preference for traditional-sized detergent bottles with Unilever’s desire to reduce packaging.

Oxiteno announced the partnership at an innovation showcase near the end of the convention. Its contribution to the new Omo is a rheology modifier that gives the diluted detergent a pleasing flow when it’s poured. Canto called viscosity the main sensory cue of performance.

Among the chitchat at the convention was surprise that one of the traditional parties wasn’t held. For more than 20 years, attendees who went out to dinner on Tuesday could count on returning to the hotel for a Dow casino or comedy event.

Peeters told C&EN he decided it was time for a change and claimed that Dow directed the money it would have spent on the party into new product innovation. “We are launching 25 new products in 2020,” he said, “two times what we usually do. In spite of cleaning having been around since humanity started, there’s still a lot of room for innovation.”


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