Enzymes: Unsung Heroes of Sustainability

enzymeI’m in rainy Copenhagen this week attending Novozymes’ 2013 Household Care Sustainability Summit.  As its name implies, the summit brings together sustainably-minded makers of laundry detergent, dishwashing liquid and other household cleaning products. It might sound like a dry topic without a great deal of impact on the world, but when you look at the indirect effects that cleaning products have, it gets a lot more exciting.

Case in point: most 3p readers are familiar with the story of Cold Water Tide. To refresh your memory, some years back Procter and Gamble did a life cycle analysis of Tide laundry detergent and found that when it came to its energy footprint, by far the most significant component was not the manufacturing or the transportation.  It was, in fact, the heating of water at people’s homes to run their washing machines. Not content to shrug their shoulders at something outside their direct control, P&G redesigned a version of Tide to work in cold water. When used this way, Tide’s energy footprint and customer’s electric bills were drastically cut.

They key to making a detergent that functions well in cold water? Enzymes.

An enzyme is simply a molecule that makes chemical reactions happen faster – a catalyst. Pretty much any metabolic reaction that takes place in your body requires enzymes to facilitate it. An enzyme is an obvious choice therefore, as an aid in removing stains – you could think of it as a stain “digester.”  Old fashioned soap works as well, of course, but an enzyme can reduce the amount of soap needed and can help specialize a cleaning product to work on very specific types of stains or in very specific conditions. For example, proteases are useful for dissolving stains from protein, like meat. Lipases disolve fat. There are enzymes that work best under extreme heat, extreme cold, and every environment in between. Enzymes have been discovered that can catalyze the dissolution of almost any type of stain (red wine remains elusive) and more are constantly being discovered and produced.

A replacement for chemicals

In addition to increasing the effectiveness of a cleaning product, enzymes can eliminate the need for many chemicals.  From a sustainability standpoint, this means less reliance on fossil fuels and less potential toxicity.   With chemicals and traditional surfactants (soap) there are three main ways to make clothes washing more effective – make the water hotter, wash for a longer period of time, and raise the pH of the water. The side effects of all of these things are higher energy use, degraded clothing, and potential irritation of skin and other health issues associated with harsh chemicals.

Well selected enzymes have the potential to allow for effective washing in cold water, in less time, and under ordinary pH conditions.  Additionally, by weight, enzymes can be as much as 1000 times more effective than chemicals. And by definition, all enzymes are biodegradable.

The carbon footprint angle

Back to the summit at hand – there’s a reason a company like Novozymes is putting on this event – they are the world’s leading maker of enzymes and have a self-stated mission that holds sustainability as a key tenet. The company estimates that the use of their enzymes (which includes more than just those in cleaning products) cut out almost 50 million tons of CO2 from customers’ footprints in 2012 – that’s close to the entire footprint of Denmark.   It’s therefore obvious that household care companies who are interested in improving their sustainability standing will be looking to enzymes as potential aids in their journey.

There will be more to come from the summit this week, including a look at how Novozymes manages and communicates the idea of sustainability internally. Please leave comments if there are questions about enzymes, household care or Novozymes that you’d like answered.

Ed note: Travel and Accommodations in Copenhagen provided by Novozymes.

Nick Aster is a new media architect and the founder of TriplePundit.com

TriplePundit.com has since grown to become one of the web's leading sources of news and ideas on how business can be used to make the world a better place.

Prior to TriplePundit Nick worked for Mother Jones magazine, successfully re-launching the magazine's online presence. He worked for TreeHugger.com, managing the technical side of the publication for 3 years and has also been an active consultant for individuals and companies entering the world of micro-publishing. He earned his stripes working for Gawker Media and Moreover Technologies in the early days of blogging.

Nick holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio School of Management and graduated with a BA in History from Washington University in St. Louis.