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Considerations for Partnership

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) Design for the Environment (DfE) Program helps businesses incorporate environmental concerns into the design and redesign of products, processes, and technical and management systems. The considerations for partnership presented in this paper form part of the DfE Program's strategy to encourage formulators and users of industrial and institutional laundry products and technologies to design and adopt safer, more efficient cleaning systems.

The DfE Program uses the Considerations for Partnership paper as a tool in the partner selection process. The program offers partnership and recognition to those companies that act as environmental stewards by improving or encouraging improvement in the environmental profile of laundry products and processes. Partners commit to seek continuous improvement in their efforts to help protect the environment and human health.

Invitation to Partner

The DfE Program invites all formulators of laundry products from the industrial and institutional sectors to consider partnering with EPA. This Considerations for Partnership paper identifies a set of positive attributes that the DfE Program would like companies to consider when formulating or selecting a laundry detergent.1 This paper has two primary purposes: to inform and to encourage dialogue between EPA and potential partners—and among all interested parties.

Our initial partner companies took a leadership role in redesigning their laundry formulations to benefit the environment and human health. In fact, the improvements and environmental benefits discussed in this paper reflect, to a considerable extent, information learned from these partnerships. This Considerations paper has evolved with each new partnership and it will continue to evolve as new partnerships and ideas emerge.

The DfE Program, within EPA's Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics, offers partner companies the benefit of EPA's many years of experience assessing the hazard, exposure, and risk of thousands of chemicals. We welcome the opportunity to work with formulators and users to improve the environmental characteristics of laundry products and services. The program relies on partner companies to approach EPA with alternative formulations or ingredients the company is considering using and ultimately to assess the effectiveness and economic viability of new products.

This Considerations paper is organized into three subject areas:

Part I. Improved Formulations—focuses mainly on the chemical components in detergent formulations and the environmental and health attributes of alternative ingredients.

Part II. Innovative Formulations and Cleaning Processes—highlights major advances in technology, most still under development, that might offer a breakthrough in environmental benefits.

Part III. Other Key Considerations—covers a range of issues from product stewardship to measures of success, all related to the quality of the partnering relationship.

The DfE Program recognizes that the partnership elements listed in this Considerations paper do not constitute a complete set of desirable attributes and invites your comments on any improvement in cleaning technology or use that might reduce risk or prevent pollution. We do not require the adoption of any particular set of attributes as a condition of partnership.

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Part I. Improved Formulations

Formulators can improve the environmental profile of conventional cleaning products by using ingredients that are less toxic, less persistent, nonbioaccumulative, and that degrade to chemicals with similar beneficial characteristics.

The DfE Program looks for improvements that focus on the following characteristics: toxicity, persistence or biodegradability, bioaccumulation potential, and the properties of degradation byproducts.

DfE uses a straightforward, pollution prevention-oriented approach in gauging the relative safety and desirability of alternative detergent ingredients: lower toxicity, more rapid biodegradation, lower bioaccumulation potential, and less toxic byproducts generally present a safer environmental profile.2 The program also considers basic factors related to potential harm, like the amount of chemical used in a formulation and effects on different species, when comparing chemical substances.

DfE recognizes that many factors influence the design and ingredient choice for a laundry detergent. Above all, the formulator must respond to the needs of its customer, the launderer. Is the launderer's water hard or soft? What types of soils and fabrics are being cleaned? What local effluent or other environmental regulations must the launderer consider? Will the detergent perform cost-effectively?

The following discussion highlights some of the key components and alternative ingredients for laundry detergents, indicating, to the extent known, which ingredients possess a potential advantage from a pollution prevention standpoint and why a partner company has decided to use a particular ingredient in its formulation. The discussion also offers some general guidance on design elements that might improve the environmental profile of a detergent formulation.

DfE seeks comments from potential partners on other components or ingredients to add to the discussion, and on any health or environmental matter related to detergent formulation and use.

  • Surfactants. The active cleaning agent in most detergent formulations, surfactants change the chemical and physical relationship between water and the surface to be cleaned. Surfactants loosen and suspend soil and enhance the wetting property of water. Environmentally improved surfactants biodegrade to less toxic and less persistent chemicals.

    Linear alcohol ethoxylates (LAEs), for example, biodegrade to linear alcohols and carboxylic acids, compounds typically with lower environmental concerns. Alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs), in contrast, might biodegrade under anaerobic conditions to alkylphenols which persist in the environment and are considered toxic to aquatic organisms. Also, LAEs are soluble in cooler water and so might aid in the development of low temperature, energy-saving detergents.

One partner company has informed EPA that it used LAEs to improve both its pollution prevention scorecard and the effectiveness of its product. Formulators might consider using linear alcohol-ester-ethoxylates to further enhance a detergent's biodegradability and environmental profile.

  • Builders. Added to formulations to change the properties of water (especially hardness and pH) and bolster a surfactant's performance, builders vary in toxicity and potential to cause human health and environmental effects. Inorganic phosphates (like sodium tripolyphosphate), once commonly used as water softening agents, are algal nutrients that can cause algal "blooms" (i.e., a large increase in algal biomass) in fresh water. The blooms eventually die off and rot, depleting dissolved oxygen in the water. Low oxygen levels diminish a water body's ability to support many forms of aquatic life.

Substitution of organic chemicals (with positive environmental profiles) for inorganic phosphates as detergent builders would be a better environmental choice. (Similarly, DfE recommends the use of safer organic substitutes instead of inorganic phosphates as effluent treatment chemicals.)

Zeolites, also known as aluminosilicates, are considered effective water treatment chemicals and pose less health and environmental concerns than inorganic phosphates or other builders (such as the higher pH sodium carbonate) when used as detergent additives.

  • Bleaches and Sanitizers. Bleaching processes that do not produce toxic or persistent byproducts are better for human health and the environment. Use of hydrogen peroxide or ozone, for example, in lieu of traditional ingredients like chlorine, eliminates the potential formation of hazardous gases and chlorinated organic byproducts while decreasing damage to fibers in clothing and fabrics, thereby, lengthening their usable life. Another traditional bleaching agent, sodium perborate may present both human health and ecological concerns.

One partner company adopted a hydrogen peroxide substitute in its enzyme-enhanced cleaning system that works effectively and satisfies laundry sanitation requirements.

(Note: Sanitation codes and requirements vary by state.)

  • Whiteners/Optical Brighteners. Environmentally preferable whiteners are those with low toxicity to humans and the environment both as parent chemicals and degradation byproducts. Whiteners that contain an aminotriazine or stilbene component might present a human health risk. Toxicity data on two sulfonated derivatives of 4, 4-bis (triazin-2-ylamino) stilbene indicate the potential for developmental and reproductive effects in humans. Alternatives to triazine-based whiteners (e.g., perhaps coumarin derivative) exist and would improve a formulation's human health profile.
  • Fragrances. Used primarily to mask the odors of other ingredients or improve a product's scent, most fragrances do not affect the functioning of laundry products. However, some fragrances can cause harmful side effects in chemically sensitive individuals (e.g., allergic reactions.) From a pollution prevention standpoint, use of fragrances should be limited whenever possible.

  • Fabric Softeners. Certain fabric softeners present a better environmental profile than others. For more rapid biodegradation, consider using softeners with one of the following hydrophobe-hydrophile (i.e., water attracting-water repelling) linkages: amides, carboxylic esters, acid chlorides, peroxides, or Schiff bases.3 Betaine esters, for example, spontaneously hydrolyze in water and are derived from natural sources; traditional quaternary ammonium compounds, in contrast, persist as toxicants in the environment.

  • Solvents. Added to formulations to dissolve organic soils and prevent ingredient separation and deterioration in liquid products, solvents may have a range of potential health and environmental effects. Volatile solvents contribute to an unhealthful increase in organic compounds in the atmosphere. An environmentally informed choice in solvent seeks to minimize volatility as well as potential health and environmental concerns. Some solvent classes (like propylene glycol ethers) may have a more positive profile--for both human health and the environment.


  • Dyes. A diverse chemical category, dyes vary widely in their potential environmental and human health effects. As with other components, DfE can help you evaluate the dyes that you are considering using. Dyes with more than two acid groups tend to be more soluble in water and less toxic to aquatic organisms. Dyes with more than two acid groups and nonmetalized dyes are environmentally preferable choices.


  • Other Components. EPA recognizes that laundry products contain a number of other components and substances not mentioned in this paper. As the DfE Laundry Project progresses and gathers information from formulators, researchers, and other knowledgeable sources, we will add to the list of components and ingredients discussed in this paper. For now, we invite comment on the following components or any others that we might have omitted: acids and alkalies, antichlor, antimicrobial agents, chelators, corrosion inhibitors, enzymes, hydrotropes, preservatives, soil-suspension and antiredeposition agents, sizing, sours, and suds control agents.

A Word to Formulators About Selecting Raw Materials

Building a detergent formulation with a more positive environmental profile may require extra care and scrutiny, especially when selecting raw materials. Structural and other differences in chemicals of the same general class and make-up may not be apparent from product literature or labels, especially for imported chemicals. Descriptions in distributor or supplier literature and catalogs may define a chemical type, like alcohol ethoxylate surfactants, but not detail a chemical's actual structure, e.g., whether a carbon chain is branched or linear--a key distinction from an environmental standpoint since linear chains biodegrade more rapidly than branched. Also, sales materials may only list trade names, often an imprecise descriptor, since the name may remain the same while the products's composition changes; and on occasion, a product may not be named correctly. Thus, if a chemical's precise characteristics are important to you, be sure to obtain from your distributor/supplier clear identifiers: CAS #, specific chemical name, structural diagram (if available), and verification that the chemicals you are purchasing possess the environmentally beneficial attributes you desire.

As a General Rule. The following environmentally desirable chemical characteristics and attributes, relevant to many detergent components, should be considered general "rules of thumb" in designing a safer laundry formulation.

  • Readily Biodegradable. Typically, the environmental profile of a chemical improves with its rate of biodegradation. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a chemical is readily biodegradable if, in a 28-day test, it biodegrades 60 percent or more within 10 days of the time when degradation first reaches 10 percent.4 Features of readily biodegradable substances include: (a) hydrophobic components composed of unsaturated linear alkyl chains and (b) hydro-phobic and hydrophilic components that are linked by an easily biodegradable group like carboxylic acid ester, which, through aerobic biodegradation (i.e., ester hydrolysis), will separate the hydrophobe from the hydrophile during the first step of aerobic biodegradation.


  • Keep in mind that while the rate of biodegradation is important, it is equally important to be aware of the byproducts formed through the degradation process. In some cases, the products of biodegradation might be more toxic and persistent than the parent compound.
  • Neutral pH. Cleaning systems that can run under neutral or near-neutral pH conditions reduce potential human health and environmental concerns associated with pH altering compounds. Two additives used in many conventional systems—alkali breakers (which raise alkalinity at the beginning of the wash cycle) and low pH sours (which lower alkalinity at the end)Care a potential hazard to laundry room workers and may contribute to chemical overuse and waste. One partner company developed an enzyme-enhanced system that functions at neutral pH with excellent performance.


  • Less Toxic Polymers. Used at different stages in the laundering process, polymers fall into a rough order of aquatic toxicity by type. Nonionic (i.e., neutrally charged) polymers are generally the least aquatically toxic; cationic (i.e., positively charged) polymers tend to have high acute (i.e., near-term) toxicity to aquatic organisms; and anionic (i.e., negatively charged) polymers fall between the cationic and nonionic.


  • Straight-Chain Carbon Molecules. Formulations with straight or linear carbon (i.e., alkyl) chains might present less environmental concerns than compounds containing highly branched molecules. Linear alkyl chains biodegrade more rapidly than highly branched chains. EPA encourages the use of substitutes for highly branched alkyl chains or highly branched hydrophobic molecular components like branched alkyls and branched propoxy and butoxy groups.

  • Large Molecular Size. The potential for a molecule to be absorbed and harm an organism is less when the molecule is larger than a certain size. Molecules with the following characteristics are not available for passive uptake through the respiratory membranes of aquatic organisms: (a) molecules with hydrophilic components having large cross-sectional diameters, at least twice as large as hexabromobenzene (i.e., greater than 10 Å), or (b) neutral and anionic surfactants with molecular weights greater than 1,000 daltons. (Large diameters or high molecular weights will limit toxicity to surface effects only and will prevent systemic effects.)

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Part II. Innovative Formulations and Cleaning Processes

In terms of desirable attributes, EPA encourages laundry formulations and systems that, by their physical-chemical nature, minimize environmental and human health risks, prevent pollution, and conserve energy and natural resources. Products and processes with the following attributes depart from the conventional and represent innovative approaches to accomplish environmental objectives.

A Word About Toxicity Information

Laundry detergent formulators and users have a "right-to-know" the properties and potential risks--to their employees and communities-- of the chemicals they use. Manufacturers of raw materials for laundry detergents have a responsibility to ascertain and communicate the potential toxicity of their products, especially those made and sold in large quantities. For a basic understanding of a chemical's toxicity, testing should measure acute and chronic toxicity, developmental and reproductive toxicity, mutagenicity, ecotoxicity, and environmental fate. In addition, because the signs of endocrine (i.e., hormonal) disruption are increasing in many species, detergent ingredients should be screened for potential effects on the endocrine system.5

Formulators and users of laundry products should ask their raw material suppliers and distributors about the toxicity profile of the chemicals they sell, what test data are available, and what testing is planned or underway.

Now Available:

  • Easily Destroyed Surfactants. Designed so that after they clean they can be rendered nontoxic through a simple, on-site treatment process--guaranteeing lower environmental risk. Easily destroyed surfactants have components that can be separated via chemical or other nonbiological process6 prior to release. Acid hydrolysis, used to lower the pH, is an example of such a process. Once the surfactancy is eliminated, the aqueous segment of the effluent poses lower risk to the aquatic environment. The solids segment containing the soil might be amenable to reuse or require handling as a hazardous waste.


  • Ozonated Laundering. May significantly reduce use of water, energy, and detergents in the washing process. Ozonated laundering uses ozone, generated by passing oxygen through a high voltage electrical field, to remove insoluble materials from fabric--usually white items. Injected into the wash water, ozone reacts chemically with soils making them soluble in water. Compared with conventional cleaning, ozonated laundering saves resources by operating at lower temperatures, with fewer rinse cycles, far less detergent--and less drying time. Ozone must be generated on-site and handled carefully since it is toxic and may cause respiratory irritation.


  • Advanced Solvent Washing. Offers the potential to recover and reuse both the cleaning solvent and the contaminants removed during cleaning. Akin to ordinary dry cleaning, the solvent washing process uses a petroleum distillate (nonchlorinated) to remove solvent-soluble soils from oil-laden fabrics--especially shop towels, mats, and absorbents. Following soil removal, a vacuum distillation tower separates these contaminants into high-, middle-, and low-grade categories (based on concentration of organics and flash point). Distillates can be used as fuel for the distillation tower itself, for offsite cement kilns, or even as recycled cleaning solvent. Solvent washing requires a final water-wash step to remove water-soluble contaminants.

Under Development:

  • Temperature-Dependent Dispersibility. Using temperature as the controlling factor, self-dispersing (i.e., self-mixing in solution) formulations, though still rare, might offer a simple mechanism to reduce risk. A desirable self-dispersing surfactant would have melting points high enough that "micelles" (i.e., a group of large molecules that surrounds a particle) form only at higher temperatures, greater than 50° C. At less than 25° C, the surfactant would exist as a crystalline solid with very low water solubility, preferably less than 1 part per billion, and, thus, would precipitate out of solution for safe disposal.


  • Liquid CO2-based Formulations. New research indicates that liquid CO2 might be a substitute for traditional solvents in cleaning systems. CO2 is nontoxic, nonflammable, nonozone depleting, and recyclable. Coupled with a compatible and environmentally sound surfactant, liquid CO2 might provide a favorable alternative to conventional water-based cleaning systems--with good performance, savings in water use, and lower environmental impacts.


  • Ultrasonic Cleaning. With potential as an effective technology to remove particulates from certain fabrics, ultrasonic cleaning could offer many resource advantages. The technology uses the popping action of microscopic bubbles to knock dirt from fabric and promises a very short wash cycle, no mechanical agitation, low energy consumption, and reduced use of detergent.

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Part III. Other Key Considerations

In addition to open and frank discussion of technical and scientific issues related to product formulation, a successful partnership might hinge on several other key elements, in particular, corporate behavior and general environmental issues.

Corporate Practice

The following considerations speak to a company's environmental values and ethic. The DfE Program wants partners who recognize the importance of environmental issues and are interested in working with EPA to improve the environmental profile of their products.

Nature of Product Stewardship Program. EPA seeks partners with a strong commitment to environmental stewardship, both in their domestic and foreign operations. The following actions exemplify such a commitment:

  • An active program to educate and assist customers in the proper use and handling of detergent products, with an emphasis on health and environmental safety. Effective product labeling, technical literature, and trained sales staff promote customer education. An automated system for dispensing laundry chemicals, which lowers the potential for worker exposure, is an example of stewardship that protects customers.


  • A corporate policy to offer the same environmentally advantageous formulations to foreign markets as are developed and sold domestically.


  • A corporate policy to eliminate or minimize discharge of wastes, esp. those that pose environmental hazards, and to promote recycling.

Commitment to Continuous Improvement. Research and development efforts at partner companies should focus on the design and redesign of laundry products that are inherently safer for human health and the environment. In the spirit of continuous improvement, potential partners should show an interest in and commitment to working with the DfE Program and EPA technical experts during the R & D evaluation or product development process.

Willingness to Furnish Measures of Success. Measures of success are an essential element of any partnership program. Measures of environmental improvement might include general information on sales and market share, verification of ingredients for reformulated products, or updates on the effectiveness of stewardship activities. The DfE Program encourages partner companies to develop an improvement goals program. A program of this type would offer internal measures of success (e.g., extension of formula redesign to other product lines), incentives for ongoing improvement, and an opportunity for additional EPA recognition.

General Environmental and Product Issues

The following considerations help provide a more complete picture of a formulation's potential environmental benefits and commercial viability.

Level of Resource Conservation and Additional Environmental Benefits. In addition to lowering the potential risks posed by laundry detergent ingredients, EPA would like to encourage development of formulations that are resource efficient and carry collateral environmental benefits.

Possible goals include:

  • Lower wash cycle temperatures: saves energy, wear and tear on fabrics, and decreases environmental release of volatile organic compounds (e.g., organics in soiled laundry items).


  • Less water use--through closed-loop water recycling systems, reduced-cycle cleaning processes, and low-foaming detergents.


  • Reduced chemical--through more efficient detergent formulations, alternative cleaning technologies, and advanced effluent treatment systems.


  • Increased fuel value of solid waste stream--for example, from a higher organic content in the hydrophobic component of the effluent.

Method for Handling Contaminants on Soiled Laundry. Among the chemicals involved in the laundry process, EPA recognizes that the contaminants on soiled laundry items might present the most serious threat to health and the environment. Formulations that are amenable to "splitting" (i.e., separation) of hydrophobic and hydrophilic components in the waste water or that permit neutralization of toxic ingredients help reduce pollution and achieve water quality objectives, like those of EPA's Office of Water.7

Effective separation of solid and liquid effluent components improves the quality of laundry waste water, helps meet local Publicly Owned Treatment Works (POTW) standards, and increases the fuel value of the solid waste stream. Effective separation techniques also avoid wasteful and inefficient practices like dilution or process slowdowns--at the laundry facility or POTW. One innovative formulation for industrial laundering uses pH adjustment to effectively separate oils and grease from the liquid effluent while neutralizing the surfactant's toxicity to aquatic organisms. (See discussion in Part II, under "Easily Destroyed Surfactants.")

A Word About POTW Removal Rates

Although the DfE Program seeks detergent formulations with increased biodegradability and treatability, rates of removal at POTWs are not a primary factor in assessing the environmental profile of substitute ingredients. The program's goal is to encourage pollution prevention- oriented innovations, like formula redesign, rather than end-of-pipe approaches to reducing potential risk.

Degree of Product Effectiveness and Affordability. Cognizant that performance and price are the key elements in most customers' purchasing decisions, the DfE Program will factor answers to questions like these into its evaluation:

  • How well does the product clean or satisfy customer performance needs?


  • Is the product a viable substitute for current cleaners? Is the price competitive (i.e., on a cost-per-pound-of-laundry-cleaned basis) or can potential resource savings or environmental benefits compensate for a higher price?

DfE welcomes comments on any aspect of the Industrial and Institutional Laundry Initiative. (See contact information below.)

Endnotes:

1. The program uses the terms "detergent," "cleaner," and "formulation" interchangeably to designate a multi-ingredient product used to wash industrial and institutional laundry items. back

2. The program intends for the term "environmental profile" to encompass both potential environmental (i.e., ecological) and human health effects. back

3. Schiff bases are a class of compounds derived by the chemical reaction of aldehydes or ketones with primary amines. back

4. For more information on the OECD criteria, see Risk Assessment of Existing Substances: Technical Guidance Document, no. XI/919/94-EN, published by the European Commission. back

5. The endocrine system controls systemic functions, like metabolism, reproduction, and growth, in humans and other organisms. The thyroid and pituitary glands are both part of the endocrine system. back

6. Examples of nonbiological processes that promote destruction of surfactancy include hydrophobe-hydrophile linkages formed with acid chlorides, peroxides, and Schiff bases; destruction half-lives should be less than 1 hour. back

7. For the industrial laundry sector, EPA's Office of Water currently lists 73 pollutants of concern. The following are among the most toxic and/or potentially bioaccumulative, posing a threat to aquatic organisms and to humans via the food chain: mercury, lead, zinc, cadmium, cyanide, TPH (naphthalene fraction), xylene, ethyl benzene, toluene, and tetrachloroethane. back

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What Is Design for the Environment?

EPA's Design for the Environment (DfE) Program is a voluntary initiative that forms partnerships with a variety of stakeholder groups in an effort to:

  • Encourage businesses to incorporate environmental concerns, in addition to the traditional criteria of cost and performance, into their decisions.
  • Effect behavior change to facilitate continuous environmental improvement.

To accomplish these goals, the program uses EPA's expertise and leadership to evaluate the human health and environmental risks, performance, and cost of traditional and alternative technologies, materials, and processes. DfE disseminates information on its work to all interested parties and assists businesses in implementing cleaner technologies identified through the program.

The program has formed cooperative partnerships with the following industries:

  • Printed wiring board
  • Computer display
  • Printing
  • Garment and textile care
  • Automotive refinishing
  • Industrial and institutional laundry

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How Can I Get More Information or Comment on This Project?

For more information about Design for the Environment's Industrial and Institutional Laundry Initiative, contact:

David Di Fiore, Project Manager
U. S. Environmental Protection Agency
1200 Pennsylvania Ave., NW. (7406)
Washington, DC 20460
Telephone: 202 564-8796
Fax: 202 260-0981
E-mail: difiore.david@epa.gov

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