Is this the future of cleaning?

| 23rd July 2009
Ecover surfactant molecule
Ecover has developed the world's first ‘eco surfactant' - the beating heart of a cleaning product - that it claims is 'more ecological and powerful' than their old formulations...

The mantra of 'green' cleaning has always been to use plant-based and mineral products instead of petrochemical ones.

As well as cutting down on harmful chemicals in our homes, 'eco' products cut down on chemicals in our water systems that can be highly toxic to fish, frogs and other aquatic animals.

That said, even plant-based formulations have an environmental impact. They require water to neutralise their impact on the water supply, energy for the manufacturing process and transport for their raw ingredients.

In other words, there is always room for improvement in the world of green cleaning.

Last month Ecover took an important step in the right direction. The company announced it had succeeded in developing the world's first 'eco surfactant' using an energy-efficient and entirely biochemical procedure powered by yeast - similar to the process of brewing beer.

But first, a word on surfactants

Surfactants are the active ingredient in the majority of household cleaners. They can be produced from either petrochemical substances or plant-based alternatives.

The first benefit of plant-based alternatives is biodegradability. Petrochemical surfactants do not biodegrade completely and so leave behind particles that accumulate in watercourses. They may also be absorbed into soil, in both cases increasing the risk of environmental damage and hindering the use of sewage sludge as an organic fertiliser.

Dirk Develter, research and development manager at Ecover describes it as similar to the rubbish left in space from space missions - the rockets break up and just leave the bits floating around. Plant-based surfactants on the other hand biodegrade quickly and completely, leaving behind no traces in the environment.

The second benefit of using plant-based over petrochemical surfactants is that they are from renewable sources rather than from petrochemicals which rely upon fossil resources.

Ecover has always used plant-based alternatives for the bulk of their ingredients. However, until now, plant-based surfactants have been manufactured using the same energy intensive process as petrochemical ones.

After seven years of research Ecover's scientists have invented a new energy efficient process to produce surfactants naturally.

Their new surfactant is produced from a ‘sophorolipid' - completely natural compounds created through the action of yeast.  The idea of this is nothing new - in the 1960s scientists discovered yeast in a bumblebee nest that had the unique characteristic of creating a kind of surfactant from a combination of glucose (sugar) and oil (a fatty acid) - but the application of it on this scale certainly is.

At first, Ecover scientists started production in a test-tube. Now they use a special 10,000 litre ‘bioreactor' in Slovakia, a machine which provides the perfect breeding ground for yeast cells. This in turn enables them to harness yeast's unique ability to combine water-soluble sugars and non-soluble oils to produce the new surfactant.

Greener than before

Develter says the company's new range of products containing its eco surfactant are 'more ecological' than their old formulations for the following reasons:

• They are made using natural, readily available, sustainable raw ingredients - vegetable oil, yeast and sugar.
• The raw ingredients are sourced in Europe, whereas previous plant-based surfactants had to be sourced from Asia so they require less transport miles.
• The energy required in the production process is even lower than before
• The products have full biodegradability and lower aquatic toxicity than before.

The new formulations are kinder to human skin too. As well as only containing plant-based ingredients and fragrances, the range is pH neutral - so no rubber gloves necessary.

What about performance? ‘Our new formulations are much more powerful our old formulations,' says Develter. Tests conducted by Ecover and an independent body for the hard surface cleaning range showed that the range outperformed most, if not all brands in effectiveness, and all scored highly in areas such as ease of use, fragrance and drying time.

So what are the downsides? According to Develter, whilst eco surfactants are suited as low-foaming surfactants in hard surface cleaning and automatic dishwashers, they are not suitable for high foaming applications such as manual dishwashing.

Experiments with solubility, foaming powder and stability are, however, in full swing so that the eco surfactants can be used in laundry and dishwashing detergents.

What's the catch?

One issue for Ecover is price. The eco surfactants are almost ten times more expensive than the cheapest petrochemical-based surfactants around. ‘Yet because of their superior performance this difference is largely levelled out' says Develter. However, in the long term the company hopes to use and produce larger amounts at a cheaper price.

At the moment Ecover can only make enough to cover their own brand's needs and they have patented production. 'We are at the beginning of a long journey with this and in the future if others see eco surfactants working they may be interested too,' says Develter. 'This may allow us to work with others and up-scale production to another level.'

There may be no such thing as a 100 per cent ecological cleaning product, but Ecover's eco surfactants are an important step in the right direction. The surfactant bar has been raised - are the cleaning giants nimble enough to follow?

The Hard Surface Cleaning range is on the market now. To find out more click here or visit

For ethical and sustainable suppliers of cleaning products goods and services check out the Ecologist Green Directory here

Laura Sevier is the Ecologist’s Green Living Editor.


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