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It's Not Easy Being Green

August 12, 2004
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Green cleaning does have its benefits


You would have to be colorblind to not realize that anything being billed as good for the environment these days is sporting a green label.

I suppose green implies the beauty of the forest, the freshness of the fields and the basic nurturing of the land that we all enjoy and want safeguarded for future generations to enjoy as well.

In our lab, the main projects on our R&D plate deal with keeping the environment green, and what a tough job it has been. Solvents incorporated in formulas for the purpose of dissolving grease and oil to make them easier to remove from fabrics have been changed. The solvents of old did a fantastic job removing grease; I thought they would never be replaced, as they would never see their equal.

But replaced they have been. Classics like perchloroethane, 1,1,1 Trichloroethane and Trichloroethylene, three great non-flammable solvents, have been relegated to the dustbin by new solvents that are inefficient or combustible. Changes like these put the formulator in the difficult position of having to utilize solvents that have the potential to burn a house down or deplete the ozone layer.

The only option a chemist has these days is to research surfactants. Surfactants are the miracle makers that have the ability to emulsify soils and remove them from fabrics. Surfactants get points for removing dirt without being flammable while being environmentally acceptable. They don't get the highest marks, however, as they can increase high-foam conditions, which can potentially lead to removal problems and higher costs.

Surfactants have the ability to attract soils into what are known as micelles, which basically allow them to be flushed away. This is the main operation of the cleaning system. Solvents are then added to help the system out - give it a kick, so to speak. The greater the solvency, the greater the kick.

However, as you increase the percentage - put more power behind the kick - you also increase the amount of solvent particles in the room as you clean. This is when ppm, or parts per million, comes into play. In our lab we have an environmentalist that controls we simple chemists with a whip, figuratively speaking. We could discover the chemical equivalent of Blackbeard's treasure, but if it doesn't meet environmental guidelines, someone will be walking the plank.

There are thousands of surfactants available today and thousands more being developed as you read this. It's just a matter of time until the Holy Grail of surfactants is uncovered.

The word "surfactant" is, unfortunately, used quite liberally to describe any number of cleaning products and processes. The word itself is based on surface-active agent and detergent, a combination confusing in itself as there is a tendency to assume both words move toward the same end.

The confusion lies in the dual functionality of most surfactants. Classifying a surfactant depends wholly on the function it best performs. The argument can be made that the terms "wetting agents," "detergents," "emulsifiers," and "penetrators" can be interchangeable, which makes classifying them all the more confusing.

But don't think that cleaning formulas are based solely on surfactants and solvents. While surfactants can satisfactorily remove greasy soils without aid, carpet-cleaning products will require bolstering for maximum cleaning capability. Additionally, if the cleaner is not fully extracted from the surface, surfactants can leave a residue on the carpet than can become a disaster.

It is always important to ask a lot of questions when you switch, or are thinking of switching, to a new cleaning agent. Ask you supplier or distributor if the product is a) safe and b) the right product for the job you are planning to use it for. That formulation has to come storming out of that jet and pounce on those greasy soils with a ferocity never before seen by dirt particles. And not only must it come down hard, but it must dive deep, penetrating the inner sanctum of the fiber before being sucked violently back out, carried quickly to that dark prison of a waste tank. It's important to remember that, green or not, your cleaner is a chemical and must be accompanied by an MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) with it. No excuses. By law, the seller must furnish the sheets when you make your purchase. An MSDS will help explain what, if any, hazardous materials are contained in your cleaner, what personal protective gear may be required, and what to do if there is an accidental spill.

Green chemistry is becoming a necessary way of doing business in the cleaning industry. As I wonder how this will affect the business in the future, I look around me at the trees, the flowers and the sky, and I think how even the most entrenched-in-his-ways cleaner can't help but admit that it is for the better.

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