Surfactants Provide Solutions

By Tom Branna, Editorial Director | August 2, 2013

The global surfactant industry meets in Barcelona as the World Surfactant Congress attracts more than 1000 attendees from around the world.

The challenges, it seems, are daunting: a planet with nine billion inhabitants, each clamoring for his or her fair share of food, water and energy. As nations search for ways to meet the needs of their citizens, there will be growing demand on shrinking resources, say industry experts, but some solutions may come from an unlikely source—surfactants. That’s the projection from industry executives and speakers who attended and presented at the 9th World Surfactant Congress and Business Convention sponsored by CESIO, the European Committee of Organic Surfactants and their Intermediates, which was held in June in Barcelona.

“Megatrends, such as limited natural resources, an aging population and global development, will impact society and our industry,” noted CESIO chairman Thomas Greindl of BASF. “This conference brings us a step closer to answering these questions.”

To help answer questions in a timely fashion, organizers noted that the next World Surfactant Congress will be held June 1-3, 2015 in Istanbul.

“We need to have these discussions every two years,” insisted Greindl. “The solutions to sustainability, regulations and other issues won’t come from a single source. There must be an exchange of ideas and the World Surfactant Congress is the place to do that.”

Federico Mayor Zaragoza, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, pointed out that every day, billions of dollars are spent on warfare while thousands of people around the world die of hunger. He urged the audience to rethink what is important to them. He predicted that as women gain more power in national government, priorities will change and, as internet usage expands around the world, more people, previously unheard, will find their voice.

“All countries must be represented at the table,” charged Zaragoza. “This Congress can help change that.”

The world is undergoing tremendous change, agreed Masakazu Negoro of Kao, noting that in 2010, emerging markets represented 41% of the global surfactant market, but are expected to account for nearly 60% of sales by 2050. During that time, an aging population will become the norm on every continent except Africa. But as demand shifts, and consumers grow older, the industry must find ways to create products that emit fewer greenhouse gases, are derived from renewable resources and conserve the limited resources available.

“There is a worldwide shortage of water, we must reduce usage,” he reminded attendees.

At the same time, he called for industry to help preserve biodiversity and help create a society that is in harmony with nature. If Negoro’s call is to be answered, however, people around the world must do a better job of reducing their consumption levels. For example, citizens of Qatar consume resources at a pace that would require 6.58 earths to meet all of their needs. In comparison, Americans’ current consumption rates would require 4.05 earths; France, 2.75; Spain, 2.67; Japan, 2.35; and China, 1.20, according to Negoro’s estimates.

As the world’s collective eco-consciousness grows, there’s been a growing demand for sustainable, carbon-neutral raw materials from organizations such as the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil. At the same time, the surfactant industry and its partners have answered these demands with laundry products that reduce rinse cycles and water usage. Surfactants are helping steel manufacturers and cement makers reduce their energy use too, according to Negoro.

Answers and More Questions
Surfactant makers are finding solutions to a host of the world’s problems—but not all the answers are as clear-cut as environmentalists would have consumers believe, according to Anne Wallin of Dow Chemical.

“(Today) every company has a sustainability program; it’s in vogue,” noted Wallin, who urged companies to rely on life cycle assessments when developing a sustainability program.

For example, Dow Chemical is building a manufacturing facility in Brazil that relies on sugar cane as a feedstock for polyethylene.
Although environmentalists hailed the move, Wallin noted that the facility will account for less 1% of global polyethylene demand.
Garnering less fanfare was Dow Chemicals’ partnership with BASF on an innovative propylene oxide process that reduces wastewater by 70-80%, energy use by 35% and the physical footprint by 25%.

“Collaboration is key,” advised Wallin. “We don’t have everything.”

Similarly, she noted that while enzymes do a great job in low temperature washing environments, they can’t do the job all by themselves. They need stabilizers and new technology to be effective. Similarly, low water rinsing requires fast suds collapse while still removing food particles.

Stefan Beckman, BASF, told the audience that suppliers must offer a broad portfolio of materials to enable choices in today’s differentiated markets and support innovative solutions. He noted that surfactants can play a key role in sustainability by leading to shorter wash cycles at lower temperatures. Like the speaker before him, Beckman called for partnerships to better meet the needs of consumers.

Pavel Misiga of the EU Commission detailed what steps the Commission would like to take to improve the environmental profile of products and consumer consumption—steps that free-market consumer product companies and their suppliers may balk at. These steps include:
  • Provide guidance to Member States and the private sector on a methodology to assess the environmental performance of products;
  • Strengthen Green Public Procurement;
  • Address the environmental footprint of products, which would include setting requirements for products;
  • Provide better information on environmental impacts of products and prevent misleading claims;
  • Increase market rewards for genuinely environmentally-friendly products;
  • Extend producer responsibility to the full life-cycle of the products they make; and
  • Take action to optimize packaging.
According to Misiga, all of these moves would improve the environmental performance of companies and the products they manufacture, as well as influence consumer demand, which would ultimately increase demand for better products. To measure the environmental performance of products, the Commission will rely on life cycle assessment, according to Misiga.

Why is it so crucial to ensure the safety of ingredients in consumer products? According to Jean Krutmann of the University of Düsseldorf, by 2050, the percentage of people 60 years of age or older will double or triple, accounting for the biggest increase in population within developed countries. But by that time, even emerging markets will see their populations begin to age. Krutmann said longer lifespans mean greater exposure to toxins, disease and environmental factors, which damages skin and puts more strain on health care systems. Compounding the problem is the fact that these consumers will still expect a better quality of life than previous generations.

“Skin diseases, including cancer, increase with age,” noted Krutmann. “Demographic changes lead to more skin diseases and yet, people want everlasting beauty!”

He reviewed how infrared radiation damages skin by causing the formation of reactive oxygen species, which enter the cell nucleus, and starts the production of matrix metalloproteinase that causes inflammation. To combat this cascade of events, he recommended the liberal use of antioxidants. Everlasting beauty is, of course, unobtainable, but consumers can improve skin health through a combination of proper nutrition, skin care and pharmaceuticals, according to the speaker. Still much work needs to be done.

“We have to better understand the needs of the elderly,” he urged the audience. “For those ages 60 to 90, we don’t know their needs.”

Lots of Good News
Rising temperatures and sea levels, dwindling resources—there’s plenty of bad news in the media these days. But Bjørn Lomborg, director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, told the audience that dire warnings that the world is doomed are nothing new. For example, back in 1798, Thomas Malthus warned that the world population was growing faster than its ability to produce food. His “An Essay on the Principle of Population” warned of “gigantic inevitable famine.”

Fast forward to 1968, when Paul Ehrlich published “The Population Bomb,” which warned “in the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death…”

More recently, the 1973 oil crisis had observers insisting the world was running out of oil.

“We worry a lot and we worry about the wrong things,” observed Lomborg. “(But) we solve problems through technology and innovation.

He noted that advances in health care have more than doubled life expectancy in many regions of the world in just 100 years. At the same time, infant mortality rates have improved significantly. Will such advances doom the planet to overpopulation?
Nonsense, insisted Lomborg.

“In 1950, the average woman in developing countries had six kids. Today, that rate is 2.8 kids and leveling off fast,” he said. “The idea that there is overpopulation is simply not true.”

Similarly, the world isn’t running out of food, more people are, in fact, consuming more food than ever. In 1960, the average person in developing countries consumed 1,920 calories per day. Today, they are consuming 2,600 calories a day.

“Things aren’t great,” Lomborg admitted. “But they are moving in the right direction.

The same can be said of most pollution levels in the world, insisted Lomborg, who noted that London’s air pollution was terrible in 1800, but air quality in the UK’s largest city has improved dramatically during the past 200 years. He predicted a similar improvement in air quality for current day China.

“As China gets richer, it (air quality) will improve,” he predicted.

Lomborg insisted that chemicals and global warming will play small roles in future challenges.

“We have to get our priorities right,” he told the audience. “Our chemical fears undermine us.”

For example, pesticides have been linked to 20 deaths in the US and yet, there are plenty of organic food advocates calling for expansion of organic (read pesticide-free) farming. According to Lomborg, a complete move to organic farming would cost $100 billion, destroy natural landscapes, increase food prices by 10-20%, reduce consumption by 5-10% and ultimately lead to 26,000 more deaths because people wouldn’t have access to fruits and vegetables.

“Too few pesticides kill more people,” he concluded.

Lomborg provided some interesting statistics regarding global warming too. He agreed that by 2050, 2,000 more people in the UK will die from heat. However, 20,000 Brits will die from cold by that time.

“More people die from cold than heat,” he reminded the audience. “We are only told one set of truths!”

Even when the science is sound, the cost can be astronomical. According to Lomborg’s estimates each dollar spent to reduce the impact of global warming will avoid just three cents of climate damage.

“Global warming is real, but our solutions don’t work,” he charged. “We need smarter solutions.”

For example, if Al Gore’s plan to reduce global warming was actually put in place, Lomborg estimates it would cost $250 billion a year. In contrast, his Copenhagen Consensus Center has devised a plan that would result in clean water, sanitation, health care, education and food for just $100 billion.

Lomborg urged people to take action if they want to improve the world’s problems. “Let’s do good…not just feel good,” he said. “Liking something on Facebook doesn’t change the world.”

Surfactant Solutions
Few companies are more closely allied with consumers than Procter & Gamble. After all, its products are used by billions of people every day. And while special interest groups insist that zealous, environmentally conscious consumers are becoming the norm, they make up just 15% of the consumer population, according to P&G’s research. Rather, the overwhelming majority (75%) will use green products if, and only if, they cost the same and there is no tradeoffs in performance, according to Phil Vinson, P&G. As for the remaining 10%, they are indifferent to the Green Movement. No wonder, then, that P&G researchers aim to meet the needs of the 75% majority.

To develop better products that cost the same, P&G relies on LCA to identify where it can make the biggest contributions to the environment. According to Vinson, in recent years, the company has moved toward high-throughput screening methods to conserve resources while running more tests to build better products—that includes optimizing surfactants. Vinson noted that while P&G is encouraging consumers to wash laundry loads in cold water, surfactant manufacturers and product marketers must work together to create formulas that work better in lower temperatures. Vinson called for surfactant systems that are less likely to form crystalline structures. An effective surfactant should have good solubility in cold and hard water, lower interfacial tension, superior kinetics and excellent green cleaning, according to Vinson.  At the same time, P&G is working to reduce product packaging by creating compact formulas that save on packaging materials, water and shipping costs.

P&G is searching for ways to replace 25% of its petrochemical-based ingredients with new materials that do not compromise on cleaning. But these materials must be truly better for the environment and cost-effective.

“Today, we have plant oils, sugars such as MES and APG,” noted Vinson. “We use screening methods to study sustainability and stain removal indexes. We can get to 60 on the stain removal index using alternatives to petroleum-derived surfactants, but petroleum-derived surfactants have a score of 65 and higher.

More specifically, P&G executives see opportunities for future surfactants in areas such as:
  • No losses in cold/hard water (high solubility);
  • Higher weight efficiency for task at hand;
  • Available in high activity to enable new forms and compactions;
  • Optimum surface activity for cleaning;
  • Renewable, sustainable and certified;
  • Better for the environment;
  • Cost-effective; and
  • Does not compete with food chain.
To avoid a “food fight,” Dimitri Perusse of the Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Chimie in Rennes (ENSCR) suggested that formulators study marine algal polysaccharides, such as agar and carrageenan. Using these materials, the ENSCR team even developed anti-aging ingredient based on laver extract and a moisturizing material that contains ulvan, a polysaccharide derived from green seaweeds. 

For more CESIO 2013 coverage, visit Happi.com

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