Green Progress
Over the last few decades much progress has been made towards reducing the chemical burden on the environment. Two examples are shown here, surfactants and PCBs.

Over 8.5 million tonnes of surfactants are made every year. They find their way into washing powders and other personal and domestic cleaning products, and are also used for industrial cleaning, paints, polymer manufacture, food production, explosives, textiles - the list is very long! Click here to find out how surfactants work.

Synthetic Surfactants

There are many naturally occurring surfactants, probably used as "soap" by early humans, and soaps (which are surfactants) have long been made from natural oils and fats.

The first truly synthetic ones were introduced in the 1950s and were referred to as detergents. These were petroleum products, but suffered from very slow degradation rates. This caused several problems including inefficient sewage-plant operation, resulting in health risks from discharged bacteria. The most obvious symptom was the formation of foam in rivers.

Researchers found that the alkylbenzene sulphonates (ABS) being used would degrade quicker if the molecule includes a straight chain (linear alkylbenzene sulphonates, LABS), rather than branched.

photo: dtergent label showing surfactants

formula: detergent molecules

Green Surfactants

Many surfactants are now readily biodegradable, and in some cases are manufactured from renewable plant-derived resources such as carbohydrates (sucrose, glucose) or plant oils (coconut or palm oil).

formula: a degradable surfactant
photo: fully degradable laundry liquid
The Belgian company Ecover specialise in manufacturing biodegradable household cleaning products from renewable resources. Alkylpolyglucosides (APG) or "sugarsurfactants" are key materials for these applications. Ecover are also introducing a class of natural "biosurfactant". For more information click here

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