Ecover and waste

Filed in Blog by on April 10, 2009 12 Comments
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production-powders at ecoverHi everyone

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.

Phosphate free

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.

Sustainability Ecover factory in france

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.

Environmental impact

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.

Biodegredation

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.

laundry-liquid by ecoverWaste

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

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!

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  1. John Costigane says:

    Sadie,

    Thanks for the background to Ecover, a company we Zero Waste enthusiasts find very helpful in our waste reduction efforts. Refillable systems can reduce the usual weekly/bi-weekly plastic bottle routine to Zero for many products, a big dent on the recycling box bottles, and on the landfill bin for their plastic caps.

    Plastic use itself is controversial to some extent. Do you plan to phase out its use eventually? From our Zero Waste perspective plastic packaging waste is the big target. Refillables are valuable in waste reduction, could metal containers be a replacement for plastic?

  2. Elizabeth B says:

    Sadie, thank you very much for an excellent explanation of Ecover’s way of doing business. I live in California; are there any plans to expand the bottle refill program out here? Currently I’m using the powder form, but I’ve got the delicates wash on hand too, and it would be so nice to be able to refill that bottle whenever I finally use it up. (I don’t handwash much. ;) )

    Mrs. Green, thanks so much for all you do. Well done on inviting industry reps to have their say in this space. It really does help me in deciding on what products to use.

  3. Sarah says:

    As John said – thanks for the information Sadie and what Ecover are doing is brilliant, but we, the consumers, are still left with having to recycle the packaging and sometimes the facilities for plastic don’t yet exist, are inaccessible or dubious in the actual recycling.

    I’m not sure what the answer is though.

  4. Sadie – thanks so much for your input here and also to Mrs G for playing host. I am a huge fan of Ecover and switched to the refill service last year – which I get by post from Wiggly Wigglers.

    The refill idea is so brilliant but I am truly bemused how consumers often have to go out of their way to benefit from it. This is not a criticism of Ecover because your network of refill stations though health shops and farm shops in the UK is fabulous.

    However what I would love to see is that network becoming more mainstream and develop into refill stations being installed into places that are frequented by the mass population, such as supermarkets or petrol stations. Has there been any interest from companies such as Waitrose, The Co-op or Somerfield? I only quote these companies because their ethics should louder than many of the others and are perhaps the first I would expect to see in a wider retail distribution.

  5. greenlady says:

    Agree re the refill stations totally, Almost Mrs Average. As I keep tediously banging on about :P not just Ecover but other manufacturers & companies need to take this on board- and get on board. I have said this before but I have used the same fabric conditioner bottle for 4 and a half years now through using the refilling station, and still going strong!! the detergent bottles also last a long time but not quite as long due to the tendency of the cap hinges to break. Can you imagine how much landfill this has saved even for just for little old me ?

    Thanks for the guest post, Sadie, really interesting and thanks Mrs Green for hosting it !

  6. Mrs Green says:

    I would like to extend my thanks to Sadie too – for an excellent and informative post. I look forward to her answers from the great questions you have posted here :)

  7. Sadie Ramm says:

    Hi everyone
    Thanks for all your feedback and comments! I’ve got individual answers for you all…
    Sadie

    John Costigane
    We’re constantly looking at new options for packaging but at the moment plastic is the best option for us for the whole picture – cost, transit, durability, recyclability etc. I don’t think metal has ever been an option – I would have to find out more from our R&D team in Belgium though. Watch this space!

    Hi Elizabeth B
    Its probably best if you speak to my colleagues over in the US directly – here’s the link to the contact us page of their website http://www.ecover.com/us/en/Contact.htm

    Hi Sarah
    It’s a tricky one, I agree. I think as consumers we all have a voice and can individually work towards trying to get better facilities for recycling in this country.

    Hi Almost Mrs Average
    Thanks for your feedback! Supporting our independent retailers has always been important to us, because that’s where the core of our business started, and so the refill system has always been a core offering for our independent trade from its launch 15 years ago. There would be some difficulties in refill being listed in supermarkets – primarily because of logistical issues such as manning the refill system, identifying whether bottles had been refilled or bought new for example.
    However, we are really keen to extend the refill system as far as we can into different areas and so we’re asking people to nominate local independent stores that they’d like to see refill in – whether it be a farm shop, village post office or delicatessen – and we’ll send the shop information on being a stockist. So if you have anywhere in mind locally to you email us on [email protected]

    Hi Greenlady
    Thanks for your comments! And well done on the waste reduction. The longest I’ve heard somebody kept one of our bottles was 15 years…I’d be interested to hear if any of you can beat that??!

    and finally…Mrs Green, thanks for inviting me!

  8. Mrs Green says:

    Thank you for coming back and answering the questions, Sadie – well all appreciate it and loved your article. It’s great to be able to invite companies to write, rather than the consumers making assumptions :)

  9. John Costigane says:

    @Mrs Green: Sadie has been a great representative for Ecover, Mrs Green. The good links we have there can only be good for both sides. Packaging has been a lesser interest but I feel they realise the advantages of Zero Waste.

  10. Thanks for the mention on Ecover and refills. This scheme is no longer available as Ecover have moved to a cardboard box which can be shredded and composted but not refilled. This does mean that folks will also be able to buy 15 litre boxes as well as 5 litres and does mean we dont spend our lives refilling… but anyway…
    The message is – recycle or compost your 5 litre box and please keep using Wiggly Wigglers if you can! :)

  11. John Costigane says:

    @Heather Gorringe: Good to see a change from plastic, Heather. I emailed Ecover for more details. These are:

    Can the containers still be returned to suppliers/shops?

    Is there any plastic content, lining or tap? If so, can these be returned for reuse/recycling by Ecover?

    More details will clarify the whole system from a Zero Waste point of view.

  12. Mrs Green says:

    @Heather Gorringe: Thanks for the update, Heather.
    In our local farm shop, we can get liquid products such as washing up liquid and fabric softener as Ecover refills, so these help keep the plastic from the landfill.

    Is the cardboard that has been used to house laundry powder ok to shred and add to a wormery or is it too toxic?

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