Technological innovations

Throughout its history, our industry has made steady progress in improving the efficiency and effectiveness of its products. We have also made great efforts to remain pro-active on issues such as ‘safety’ and ‘environment’. Below are a few industry milestones.

First industry initiatives for safer products
In the 1930s and early 1940s, soap was the surface-active agent (surfactant) of choice in laundry detergents. After the war, the formulation of laundry detergents entered a period of rapid development. The availability of petroleum-based alkylates led to the introduction of tetrapropylene-benzene sulphonates as surface-active agents in place of soap.

It was not long, however, before negative effects on the environment began to emerge. By the end of the 1950s, foam was appearing on rivers throughout Europe. Investigation showed that the cause was the tetrapropylene-benzene in detergents. The inadequate biodegradability of this compound was deemed an important factor in the problem.

The industry reacted by introducing new biodegradable linear alkyl-benzene surfactants and in 1967 established a voluntary agreement at European level to avoid the use of tetrapropylene-benzene sulphonate surfactants. This greatly reduced the environmental burden of laundry detergents and was an early example of the industry responding proactively and voluntarily to an environmental problem, without the need for legislative action.

New machines, new textiles, new developments
At the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s, the washing-machine market was transformed by the introduction of front-loading automatics. These machines required new washing powders with totally different characteristics, including low foam production. In addition, new textiles containing synthetic materials such as nylon and polyester had been introduced, requiring lower wash temperatures.

Around the 1970s, a problem emerged in certain regions of Europe in which bodies of water became increasingly eutrophic, i.e. rich in nutrients that promote dense plant growth, the decomposition of which kills animal life by depriving it of oxygen. Again, the industry reacted quickly and effectively, developing laundry detergents that were phosphate-free (e.g., zeolites and polymer systems). New ingredients in detergents were also developed to enable effective washing at lower temperatures: enzymes for removing proteinaceous stains (first introduced in a powder in 1963), amylase enzymes for removing starchy deposits (1973) and a low-temperature bleach activator (TAED) in 1978 that allowed bleaching to be carried out at 60 °C rather than at boiling temperature.

At the same time, with regards to biodegradability of ingredients, and following the Biodegradability Directive 73/404, the industry concluded a voluntary agreement as of 1975 not to use alkylphenol-ethoxylates in household detergents, due to their poor biodegradability profile. For recent developments on this topic, go to Biodegradability.

Towards increasing efficiency of detergents
The 1980s and 1990s, innovative developments have continued to provide increased efficiency. These improvements have resulted in reductions in chemicals and packaging used per wash, whilst maintaining the same or even better washing performance.

The early focus on the environment led the industry to invest great resources and effort into solutions of the problem. Environmental scientists from A.I.S.E. member companies have taken a leading role, working in partnership with academia and experts in government departments in many countries. Particular attention has been focused upon environmental fate and effects testing, risk assessment and, more recently, life cycle analysis. The use of these tools has contributed to a deeper understanding of the influence of product specification on the environment.

In addition, following the signing of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development in 1992, the industry has increased its efforts to develop products in a more sustainable manner.

Between 1997 and 2002, A.I.S.E. implemented for its household laundry detergents a Code of Good Environmental Practice. This has led to reduced consumption of chemicals and packaging and the increased use of organic ingredients with better biodegradability. It has also allowed consumers to reduce the average wash temperature used for laundry washing in Europe, which greatly reduces the amount of energy required.

Since the early 1990s, a number of voluntary initiatives in the domain of sustainable development have been developed by A.I.S.E. and Cefic.  A.I.S.E.’s ‘Charter for Sustainable Cleaning’ is the most important initiative for the soaps, detergents and maintenance products sold across Europe. For more information about the latest Sustainability initiatives, please click here.

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