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The cleaning industry seems serious about sustainability

A topic long on the agenda at the American Cleaning Institute’s annual meeting has moved to the top of the list in 2022

by Craig Bettenhausen
February 13, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 6


Four people in business attire seated on a stage and talking. A large "ACI" logo is behind them on a backdrop.
Credit: American Cleaning Institute
Jillaine Dellis (second from left), an executive at the consumer product company Henkel, said that by 2025, all the firm’s packaging will be recyclable, reusable, or compostable.

Two years in, COVID-19 has just about everyone exhausted. Even people in the cleaning product industry, which has reaped the benefit of unprecedented demand for cleaning and disinfection, are eager to talk about something else. If they get their pick, that something else is sustainability.

New and established suppliers arrived in person to the 2022 meeting of the American Cleaning Institute (ACI) in Orlando, Florida, ready with pitches centered on their small carbon footprints, biobased ingredients, and other measures of environmental responsibility.

Ethanol maker CIE, for example, came looking for new customers for its corn ethanol just days after being certified as carbon neutral by an independent auditor. The industrial gas company Air Products and Chemicals captures carbon dioxide from the firm’s Indiana plant, cleans it up to food grade, and sells it to food and beverage makers.

Sustainability is no longer a niche category.
Rosanna Stokes, Americas business development manager, Lanxess

CIE sales director Bret Happel said carbon neutrality gives the firm an edge over many of its competitors in the ethanol business as more and more consumer product companies look to add low-carbon claims to their labels. Anticipating continued growth in demand for carbon-neutral ethanol from cleaning product, beverage, and pharmaceutical markets, the firm is shopping for sites in Iowa and Nebraska for a new plant. Happel said 97% of its existing capacity is spoken for.

Sustainability has long been a buzzword at the Orlando meeting, but this year it seemed to have leaped to the top of the priority list. When the meeting last happened in person, in 2020, 1,4-dioxane contamination in workhorse surfactants such as sodium lauryl ether sulfate dominated the conversation, and sustainability was a lesser concern, according to Elvira Greiner, associate director for specialty chemicals at the market research firm IHS Markit. This year, the topic had a central place in almost every public session.

The specialty chemical maker Nouryon, which spun off from AkzoNobel in 2018, was pitching its Dissolvine line of biodegradable chelating agents, which soften water to reduce scaling and improve the performance of surfactants and other cleaning ingredients. The incumbent chelator, ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid, has a long history, but it doesn’t break down in the environment. Nouryon just doubled capacity for its “green chelates,” methylglycine N,N-diacetic trisodium salt and glutamic acid N,N-diacetic tetrasodium salt, with the completion of a plant in the Netherlands, which complements existing facilities in the US and China.

Suzanne Carroll, Nouryon’s vice president for home and personal care, said 65% of the products the firm sells for home cleaning are biobased, biodegradable, or both, and 90% of its R&D has a sustainability angle. “Green chemistry is growing much faster than conventional chemistry,” she said.

At the ACI’s Innovation Showcase panel, Nouryon shared the stage with five other ingredient makers. Arxada, the former specialty chemical unit of Lonza, introduced citric acid–based disinfectant wipes, which Marketing Manager Kiran Kulkarni said are biobased and biodegradable. The latter is a rare feature in wipes, which are a growing presence in waterways and sewer clogs.

Also on the panel was Jun Su An, the product development director at Solugen. By combining enzymatic transformation with chemical catalysis, An said, the 5-year-old firm is able to make chemicals without significant waste streams or by-products. His presentation featured glucaric acid, which is used to combat scaling and boost the cleaning power of automatic dishwasher detergents. Preliminary results from a life-cycle analysis suggest Solugen’s process is carbon negative overall.

“We want to make sure the carbon footprint associated with our chemistry is as low as possible,” An said. “We also want to make sure that we have the most nontoxic, most biodegradable chemistry.”

Scott Tuchinsky, who leads Croda International’s consumer care division in North America, talked about the firm’s Evogen microbial cleaners. This new product category delivers live microbes to surfaces, where the nonpathogenic bugs—selected Bacillus strains in Croda’s case—break down grime and grease deep in microscopic crevices. Compared with conventional surfactants, microbes make the next cleaning session more efficient and effective, and they do so with a lighter environmental footprint, Tuchinsky said.

Lanxess’s Rosanna Stokes used her time to talk about bringing the preservative sodium benzoate, traditionally used in food, to home care. The ingredient came to Lanxess in 2021, as did Stokes, with the acquisition of Emerald Kalama Chemical.

Stokes said the firm’s benzoate-based Kalaguard is the first new biocide to win US Environmental Protection Agency approval for home-care products in more than a decade. The ingredient is already in more than 200 products, a speedy uptake she attributed to its biodegradability and mildness. “Sustainability is no longer a niche category,” she said.

Many people at the meeting stressed that though consumers are demanding low-carbon, biodegradable products in responsible packaging, they’re unwilling to compromise on performance.

Green chemistry is growing much faster than conventional chemistry.
Suzanne Carroll, vice president for home and personal care, Nouryon

“Green is nice, but the product has to perform, has to provide the efficacy in use, or the consumer will only buy your product one time,” said Greg Smith, vice president for sales and marketing at the biosurfactant maker Locus Performance Ingredients. Locus recently landed an exclusive deal to supply Dow, which said Locus’s fermented sophorolipids offer a “substantial reduction in carbon footprint relative to conventional surfactants.”

Dow isn’t the only major chemical company looking at biobased surfactants. Stepan, Evonik Industries, and Clariant have all made moves in the field recently. BASF’s senior vice president for care chemicals in North America, Marcelo Lu, said orders for alkyl polyglycosides—a biobased surfactant family that BASF has been marketing for more than 25 years—picked up significantly starting in mid-2021.

Between consumer demand for green cleaning and incoming regulations on 1,4-dioxane—not an issue for most biosurfactants—some brands may struggle to secure the ingredients they need to keep up, Lu said. “Late comers are going to be in trouble.”

Biosurfactant volumes are “a drop in the bucket” compared with conventional surfactants today, IHS’s Greiner said, but that could change over the next 10 years. “I see companies definitely taking it seriously,” she said.

Aaron Lee, global vice president for home care and industrial cleaning at the chemical distributor Univar Solutions, agreed that the shift toward sustainability is real. “Two years ago, it’s maybe fourth or fifth on the agenda. This year, it’s been the first thing everybody talks about. It’s not just a marketing effort. It’s actual investments and teams dedicated to this.”


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