Sustainable cleaning —
It’s a team effort
Resources are consumed and emissions arise at every point in the cleaning life cycle from manufacture of the products to use and disposal. So it’s not surprising that everyone needs to play their part in making cleaning sustainable.
But the way you use the product is even more important than that you might think. Detailed studies of the cleaning life cycle show that the greatest part of the total impact occurs when the product is used in the home.
Sustainability has been improved enormously over the years. Manufacturers have been developing products that give much better results, with much lower dosage, at low temperatures in machines that use much less water. And it’s still going on, with a new Charter for Sustainable Cleaning scheme to ensure manufacturers keep doing their bit.
But ultimately, the user controls much of the impact by determining how much product is used, how much water, and how much energy to heat the water. So there’s plenty you can do to clean sustainably.
Environmental impacts across the life cycle
The chart below shows the results of detailed analysis of every step in the life cycle of doing the laundry using a typical washing powder.
There are substantial impacts in making the ingredients for the detergent but most of the impact comes at the end of the life cycle, when the product is used and disposed of. It’s been calculated that the person doing the laundry controls about 70% of total energy use, 90% of the emissions and 80% of the solid waste across the whole life cycle.
What are manufacturers doing to be green?
It’s not something you notice from day to day, but just think back to how washing used to be done. If you think about the main impacts - materials, energy, water and waste - you quickly start to see how much greater the environmental impact of washing would have been then.
It’s not so long ago that most washes were done at high temperature, 60 degrees up to as high as 95 °C. The amount of product used per wash was double or treble what we need to use today - and so was the amount of packaging. Boxes and bottles today are a fraction of the size to do the same amount of washing. That means today’s products don’t just use less cardboard and plastic for packaging, they also need fewer lorries, and less fuel, to transport them and they take up less space in supermarkets and warehouses. And today’s wash needs only a third of the water it used to.
These dramatic improvements are the result of innovation:
- new ingredients such as enzymes that digest dirt, activators to make the bleach work at low temperatures and polymers to make the dirt come off clothes more easily
- clever blends of ingredients to give better results at low temperatures and clever ways of making products to shrink the volumes and save packaging
Such innovation relies on the competitive efforts of individual companies and suppliers. But over the last 15 years industry associations like UKCPI and our European counterpart A.I.S.E. have co-ordinated a series of initiatives that have encouraged the whole industry to work to match the best standards.
From 2005, manufacturers across Europe have been invited to sign up to a new Charter for Sustainable Cleaning. This commits them to continuously improve the sustainability of all their operations - minimising the impact of their manufacturing and distribution operations, designing more sustainable products and guiding users to use them in the most sustainable way. Each year they must report their performance against the key measures of sustainability, such as energy and water use, safe working and waste, and all this is independently audited. The manufacturers of over 90% of all the cleaning products sold to consumers in the UK, and the majority of those sold to professional users, are signed up for this Charter, as are many leading retailers.
And the work goes on. In 2010 an extended Charter was launched which for the first time allows companies to qualify individual products as meeting advanced standards of sustainability. The first standards launched cover laundry detergents and fabric conditioners and set limits for the amount of product and packaging needed per wash, as well as requiring good performance at low temperatures. There’s also a specific check on the product formulation to ensure good margins of safety for the environment when disposed of down the drain after use. Products that meet these standards, and whose manufacturers meet all other requirements of the Charter, can put a logo on pack.
So as these logos start to appear, you can check you’re buying a product with a good sustainability profile made by a company that’s doing its bit. That’s important to know when it comes to doing your bit.
So how are we doing?
In a nutshell, we’re doing pretty well. But we could do much better, and save money in the process.
As laundry detergents have become more concentrated over the last 10-15 years, and tablet products have been introduced to promote more careful dosing, not only has the amount needed per wash been halved, but users have been dosing more accurately too. The wasteful tendency to add a bit extra to make sure is becoming much less common.
On energy, the average wash temperature in Europe about 15 years ago was around 50 °C and 15% of washes were still “boil washes” at 95 deg C. Now the boil wash is almost a thing of the past and average wash temperature has dropped a full 10 °C. Many washes could now be done at 30 degrees C, but in the UK only 32% are. If the average for Europe dropped to 30 degrees, we’d save enough electricity on laundry alone to power every home in Ireland.