Washing and cleaning products are indispensable for a clean, hygienic and sustainable society. These substances are never intended to harm the environment. Manufacturers take their responsibility seriously in this regard. They do this, for example, by adjusting the composition of products and helping consumers and professional users to handle the products more consciously. Over the years, a red line can be seen in the management that manufacturers take in this sustainability process. A real leadership role is fulfilled!
The 1960s: balancing environmental gains and losses
In the early 1960s, for example, it appeared that the increased use of washing powder led to large mountains of foam on the surface water. The government, science and industry immediately searched for the exact cause of this with great urgency. In search of the explanations for the mountains of foam, the researchers discovered a connection between the molecular structure of the surfactant TPBS4, which is used in all washing powders, and other surfactants. What turned out? The more branched the substance’s structure, the less degradable it is. The concept of biodegradability did not yet exist, let alone the rules for it.
When the role of bacteria in the degradability process became clear, the problem was quickly solved. The industry took responsibility immediately after the relationship was known, and thanks to the development of new surfactants, the problem was solved within a few years. At this important point, the environmental impact was therefore quickly and significantly reduced. This was due, among other things, to pressure from public opinion, the active role of industry and the ongoing dialogue between industry and government.
1970s: The industry is ahead of the curve
In the mid-1970s, the Netherlands was confronted with a new environmental problem: eutrophication of surface water. Excessive amounts of phosphate in the water led to excessive algae growth, which choked the water. This subsequently resulted in a decrease in biodiversity. Phosphates were used as softeners and detergent boosters in detergents.
At first, the detergent industry thought it could be quickly solved by switching to other fabric softeners, but the available alternatives turned out to be many times more harmful. This has delayed the introduction of replacements by around ten years. With the arrival of zeolites in combination with small amounts of polycarboxylates, a solution was found that could be used immediately. As a result, the use of phosphates in detergents was already reduced by fifty percent in 1993. In 1987, the NVZ and the Minister of the Environment signed the Phosphate Agreement. This led to all washing powder being phosphate-free in the late eighties. It was not until many years later that the use of phosphate in detergents was regulated by law. So the industry was way ahead.
1990s: industry comes up with solutions
At the end of the 1990s, the discussion broke out in Europe about the more or less deadlocked European chemicals policy. Of the more than 30,000 existing substances on the market, we hardly knew whether they were safe for people and the environment. The rules to ensure that we learn more about these substances were far from sufficient. A large number of countries started their own national initiatives. In the Netherlands, the program SOMS: Strategic Dealing with Substances was started. Many of the ideas generated in the Netherlands in the SOMS program were incorporated in Brussels in what later became the REACH Regulation. NVZ was particularly actively involved in the creation and development of SOMS.
From 2004, the charter develops into a sustainable ‘sign’
Even after the turn of the century, the industry continued to voluntarily innovate and pursue sustainable initiatives. A European example that also gained wide support in the Netherlands is the charter for sustainable cleaning. On the one hand, the charter helps consumers and professional users to use detergents or cleaning products in a sustainable way, and on the other hand, it encourages manufacturers of detergents and cleaning products to work towards continuous improvement in the safety and well-being of consumers. customers and employees, and a reduction of the environmental impact.
Sustainability is the future.
The charter consists of voluntary, but non-binding, agreements and ensures that companies continue to strive to produce more sustainably and continue to improve products. Each year they must report on a number of important indicators. Ultimately, this charter approach leads to profit for people and the environment. This includes better safety information for customers and consumers, lower energy and water consumption, less waste and packaging and a better social and economic environment. From 2020, the charter also became the ‘signpost’ for the industry’s sustainable initiatives. The charter continues to test companies on the production, design and use of detergents.
Our sustainable industry is ready for the future
The above initiatives are a random selection from a number of examples of proactive leadership within our industry. Manufacturers, NVZ and the industry as a whole are constantly taking great steps to reduce its ecological footprint. Sustainability is the future.
Written by Marita Vaes, communications manager at NVZ – Clean / Hygienic / Sustainable