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Utilizing green chemistry in the cleaning industry

September 19, 2010
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Everywhere you go, you see products claiming to be green.

Cleaning products are no exception.

While the idea of environmentally benign, non-toxic cleaning products is certainly enticing, how do companies develop these products without sacrificing performance or profit?

One way scientists in the cleaning industry are tackling this is through the practice of green chemistry and green engineering.

Green chemistry is an innovative, economics-driven and science-based approach to reducing or eliminating the use and generation of substances hazardous to human and environmental health.

It is governed by 12 guiding principles developed by Paul Anastas, who is now director of Yale University’s Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering, and fellow scientist John Warner.

While the true principles look at things from a molecular perspective, we adapted them slightly for this article to illustrate how similar principles can be applied to the design of new cleaning products.

1. Prevent waste
Hazardous chemicals in cleaning products are routinely flushed into waste treatment plants and millions of empty containers are discarded every day. Scientists practicing green chemistry understand it is better to prevent waste than to treat or clean it up. They look at the entire lifecycle of a new cleaning product. The cradle-to-grave, take, make and waste approach to product design is being replaced by the more effective cradle-to-cradle approach. Cleaning products formulated using green chemistry do their job and do not become waste.

2. Optimize formulation and production
Replacing a “glug-glug” method of dilution with an accurate chemical management system maximizes cleaning product yields. Engineering a method for 100 percent extraction of the cleaning product from the container optimizes product, reduces waste, and lowers costs to users.

3. Focus on eliminating the hazard
No product can be totally risk free, however, a guiding principle in green chemistry supports the Hippocratic protocol, “first, do no harm.” The traditional approach to managing chemical risk is reducing exposure to an “acceptable level.” Green chemistry is about reducing hazard. Removal of ingredients that are sensitizers, irritants, endocrine disrupters, corrosives, air contaminants, reproductive toxins, and carcinogens could substantially reduce potential harm to people and the planet. If the hazardous chemical is not in the cleaning product, then it can’t harm you.

4. Never sacrifice quality or performance
Product performance is tantamount in green chemistry. A product designed using green chemistry must perform equal to or better than equivalent traditional products. Scientists will validate performance both in the laboratory and in “real-life” cleaning environments. EPA Design for the Environment (DfE), Green Seal and TerraChoice EcoLogo all require performance testing as part of their certifications.

5. Avoid use of volatile organic compounds (VOC) whenever possible
Many companies are formulating their products to comply with the California CARB VOC regulations. This is a good baseline, but companies practicing green chemistry will formulate to eliminate VOCs. New hybrid surfactant combinations are replacing the need for VOCs without sacrificing performance.

6. Design for energy efficiency
Conservation of water and energy is essential. Cleaning products formulated using green chemistry should be designed for use in cold water to eliminate unnecessary energy consumption. Moreover, the product should be formulated to reduce the amount of water needed to rinse away the solution and soils. Designing the product to be highly concentrated can reduce the amount of energy needed to transport products.

7. Use renewable raw materials
Fossil fuel materials are depletable resources and should be avoided whenever possible. Renewable materials are frequently associated with biological and plant-based starting materials. However, whenever a material can be easily regenerated within a short timeframe, it should be considered renewable.

8. Avoid unwanted derivatives
A chemical can be added to a cleaning product to manipulate the viscosity or foaming of a product to make it easier to package. If the chemical additive becomes a derivative that is inert and doesn’t contribute to the product’s performance, it should be eliminated.

9. Use catalysts whenever possible
Companies engaged in green chemistry use catalysts to reduce the amount of steps required to make a product. Small amounts of a catalyst added to a formulation can speed up or slow down a reaction to improve performance and minimize energy consumption and waste.

10. Design for degradation
Chemical products should be designed so that at the end of their function they do not persist in the environment and will break down into innocuous degradation products. In applying this principle to the design of a new cleaning product, companies ask such questions as, “When people are finished using this product, what happens to it? What happens if they pour it down a drain?” Green chemists will eliminate problematic surfactants like nonyl phenol ethoxylates and replace them with alkylpolyglucoside (sugar-derived) surfactants that will readily biodegrade into innocuous substances.

11. Pollution prevention
The option of first choice is to prevent formation of pollution at the source. Green chemists look at chemicals and manufacturing processes to eliminate pollution wherever possible. Preventing pollution will protect our planet and can reduce the cost of regulatory compliance, waste disposal, wastewater treatment, and liability expenses.

12. Minimize the potential for accidents
Exposure controls are important, but provide limited protection. For instance, a cleaning professional may be wearing gloves to protect themselves from the hazards of a cleaning product, but how does this protect someone downwind of the product in use? Exposure controls can and do fail. Elimination of harmful chemicals is the best way to minimize the potential for accidents. Green chemistry assures that products are designed to be safer and less toxic than current (and widely used) alternatives. Sustainable cleaning products are formulated with raw materials that are more innocuous and renewable, eliminating unnecessary solvents and other ingredients that have potentially negative impacts on human health and the environment, increasing formulation functionality and reducing the potential for accidents.

While green chemistry is becoming more prevalent in the scientific community, how can consumers know if a product has been designed using these principles?

The best way is to look for products that have been through a rigorous certification process.
Companies practicing green chemistry can have their products and ingredients reviewed by the EPA Design for the Environment program.

The EPA does a full assessment of the chemical ingredients of a product and reports their findings to the company.

Any ingredients found to be questionable by the EPA must be replaced by safer substances.

In addition, finished products can be certified by EPA DfE, Green Seal or TerraChoice EcoLogo, all of which are well-respected, third-party, independent certifiers of cleaning products.

Companies that are utilizing the above principles in the development of new cleaning products are true green pioneers.

They are breaking new ground by making products in a whole new way.

While these innovative companies are doing something positive for the environment, they are also simply practicing good business.

They are reducing the cost associated with making their products by eliminating unnecessary processes and ingredients while also differentiating themselves in the marketplace.

And finally, they are attracting and retaining customers because people feel better about buying effective products that are good for the environment.

Quite simply, green chemistry is just good business and we will no doubt see its larger adoption in the years ahead.

Roger McFadden is the chief science officer of Corporate Express, a Staples company and one of the designers of the company’s environmentally preferable commercial cleaners, Sustainable Earth. He and his scientists practice green chemistry in the Corporate Express lab, located in Aurora, Colo. Contact him at

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