Surprise: Your cleaning supplies are full of fossil fuel-based ingredients

By Adele Peters

Benzene, a chemical found in crude oil, might also be in your laundry detergent (you might miss it—it’s often in the form of somewhat unpronounceable ingredients such as sodium dodecylbenzenesulfonate). Other petrochemicals are also commonly used to make similar products. But Unilever, one of the world’s largest consumer goods companies, now plans to transition the ingredients in its line of home cleaning products—including dishwashing liquid and laundry detergent—completely away from fossil-fuel-based carbon.

It’s a part of the transition to a zero-carbon economy that is often overlooked. “Decarbonizing energy alone will not be sufficient to limit global warming to 1.5 [Celsius],” says Mike Parkington, executive vice president of home care research and development for Unilever. “It is now time to tackle the carbon emissions hidden in everyday products by shifting from fossil sources of carbon to renewable and recycled carbon sources to make these products.”

By 2030, as part of a 1 billion euro (roughly $1.2 billion) “Clean Future” program that also aims to help the company cut the use of virgin plastic in half, Unilever plans to replace all of the fossil-derived carbon in its cleaning products with renewable or recycled carbon. The company is using a system it calls a “carbon rainbow” to color-code sources of carbon. “In the carbon rainbow, ‘black carbon’—chemicals derived from crude oil for instance—is replaced by a color-coded array of sustainable carbon sources,” he says. What will replace it? “For starters, there is ‘grey carbon’ sourced from waste materials like plastic.” The company is currently working with a company that makes surfactants, an ingredient used to help wash away dirt, to source a surfactant from plastic waste; the plastic is broken down into its original components and then reprocessed into a biodegradable surfactant.

Other new sources of carbon include captured CO2, which the company is beginning to use as a source of soda ash, another ingredient in detergent. (In the company’s internal rainbow, captured carbon is classified as purple). Other ingredients will come from plants, algae, and bacteria; Unilever is beginning to use new biodegradable surfactants made by a biotech company, for example.

Chemicals currently make up the largest part of the carbon footprint of Unilever’s cleaning and laundry products. By making the switch away from petrochemicals, it expects to reduce that footprint by 20%, one step toward a 2039 goal of net zero emissions for all products. (The company hasn’t yet set a goal for replacing fossil-based carbon in personal care products such as body wash or shampoo, however.)

“Chemicals made from fossil fuels already account for 12% of global oil demand and are set to account for over a third of the growth in oil demand to 2030,” says Parkington. “The solution is to diversify sources of carbon for chemicals away from fossil fuels to grow within the limits of our planet. We must stop pumping carbon from under the ground when there is ample carbon on and above the ground if we can learn to utilize it at scale. We must break our dependence on fossil fuels, including as a raw material in products.”

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