After my post about our packaging credentials last week, Mrs Green invited me to write a guest post about Ecover. I wanted to tell you a bit about Ecover and how the consideration of waste fits into our ethos. Ecover makes effective, ecological cleaning products, but running through the core of our business is sustainability. We define sustainability using the Brundtland Commission’s 1987 definition: meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Sustainability runs through everything that we do – whether we’re considering ingredients for a new product, all the way through to what packaging we’ll put it in.
Ecover was actually founded in 1980 by a Belgian, Frans Bogaerts, who had a vision to create a phosphate free washing powder. At the time, rivers were foaming and fish were dying – and phosphates in laundry products were rightly seen as a major contributor to this. The core of our business has remained true to this original vision, but over the years we’ve embraced performance as well as ecological credentials. Finally in 1992, our first factory was opened in Malle, Belgium which featured an ecological extension on the original structure. Our most recent addition in Boulogne-sur-Mer in France in 2007 was built from scratch on a greenfield site – actually part of a green business park. The design and build has taken on board many of the things we’d learnt along the way from the original site.
The factories are the epitome of our business – a fusion of sustainability and efficacy. For example, in Malle the building is orientated to follow the sun’s movement from East to West to minimise the need for artificial light. The green roofs (actually sedum plants) create a habitat for insects and birds as well as a thermal and acoustic insulating layer so we don’t need central heating or air conditioning in the factory year round. Inside, energy efficient mixing tanks mix our 28 million litres of liquid product each year and filling and packing machines pack up our products for market in 22 countries around the world. The energy efficient bit is actually the gear mechanism used to stir the 20,000 litre vats: they only use the equivalent of a household appliance in energy, giving an example of how Ecover is pioneering in the equipment and techniques that we use to make our products.
Waste that you control yourself is quite easy to measure – but its also important to consider the products that you buy and what they leave behind in the environment after you’ve pulled the plug. This might not be easy to see or for you to measure, but by understanding the impact cleaning products have on the environment you can personally generate even less waste.
At Ecover we consider a variety of parameters for each ecological choice we make – from product concept to final delivery to the store, all of which go further than legislation demands. For example, each ingredient is carefully selected against very strict criteria, including renewability, toxicity and biodegradability to minimise their impact on the environment and all life forms.
I wanted to tell you about biodegradation, because its one of the easiest ways to understand ‘waste’ in the environment from cleaning products. The ingredients that make up our cleaning products break down after they’ve worked their magic in our kitchens, bathrooms and washing machines. Current legislation requires 60% of the detergents in a cleaning product to be fully decomposed within a period of 28 days. At the end of the process of complete biological decomposition, all that remains is water, CO2 and minerals, which can be taken up again by living natural systems. However, this legal requirement for full degradability only applies to the detergents – which only form between 3 – 20% of the product. It also only requires biodegradation to happen when oxygen is present, and in most water treatment plants where this process is supposed to happen, there is no oxygen present.
So what happens to the bits that don’t biodegrade? Some ingredients are called persistent chemicals – so what’s left after the products have broken down gets into our water systems and remain there. It’s a bit like all the rubbish left in space from space missions – the rockets break up and just leave the bits floating around! They also end up as sludge in water treatment plants – which is either sent to landfill or burnt. Ecover never uses any persistent chemicals in any of our products, and we go further with our ingredient choices to ensure our whole product, not just the detergent bit, biodegrades completely and fully, in all types of conditions, oxygen rich and oxygen poor.
Critical dilution volume
We often talk about our products having a minimal impact on the aquatic environment. As I’ve already mentioned, cleaning products have their biggest impact after they’ve done the job and you’ve pulled the plug. We measure this by something called critical dilution volume or CDV – which gives us a way to understand the burden of cleaning products and toxic chemicals on the water system. CDV measures how much water it takes to neutralise each dose of a product. For instance, we’ve used it to work out that Ecover Toilet Cleaner takes 400 times less water to neutralise than its nearest competitor. And if 5% of families in the UK switched to Ecover Biological Washing Powder from a conventional product, in excess of ½ million Olympic swimming pools worth of water would be safeguarded against pollution in a year. So when you’re considering reducing waste, think about how you can reduce the water you waste too. If you’re after more tips for this check out our website about our partnership with WaterAid.
Packaging waste is just part of the equation for us, but its definitely something which we take into consideration. Our refill system in the UK is designed so people can take their empty bottles back to their nearest store and have them refilled which is an easy way to save resources. It’s currently available in independent stores nationwide so search for your nearest on the Where to Buy page. Our bottles are made from polyethylene and the caps are made from polypropylene, both are 100% recyclable and can be recycled together. Our cardboard powder and tablet boxes are made from 97% recycled card and again, can be recycled.
Sustainability is a journey
I hope that’s given you some insights into how the idea of waste and reducing it fits into our overall ethos of sustainability, and helps us make decisions in making our products that may not be considered by other companies. We appreciate that trying to reduce your impact on the environment is an extremely complex business, and so well done to everyone on this site for trying! Something our MD is fond of saying seems an appropriate way to end – sustainability is a journey, so what’s good enough for today is not good enough for tomorrow. Personally I think that’s quite an exciting challenge!