When people use home, beauty and personal care products – from shampoos and body washes to laundry detergents and washing-up liquids – they end up going down the drain. That’s unavoidable – it’s simply how they function, to do what they do.

But we want to make sure that, in doing so, our products are kind to the planet.

Through our Safety and Environmental Assurance Centre (SEAC) team, we have always assessed our ingredients to ensure environmental safety, but we know that consumers want even more reassurance. That’s why we’ve committed to make our ingredients and formulations biodegradable by 2030, to minimise their impact on water and aquatic ecosystems.

What does that mean and how are we going to achieve it?

The definition… or rather, lack of one

Right now, there isn’t a universal definition of biodegradability, particularly in terms of how quickly materials should break down. But there are globally accepted standards and tests, which we align with.

Our position is to have ‘ultimate biodegradation’ which means something breaks down completely to its component parts – carbon dioxide, water and mineral salts – which get returned to the earth’s natural cycles. And it must be quick – within hours, days or at most weeks.

Where we are now

Aside from water and salts, which are already in their natural state, most of the ingredients we use – approximately 90% by volume – across our home, beauty and personal care products already biodegrade quickly and completely. However, while proven to be safe for the environment, some take longer – months – to break down.

The challenge

There are certain benefits or characteristics that people expect from home and beauty products. For example, shampoos that are thick so they are easy to measure out and handle, or washing powders that can make white clothes whiter.

However, the ingredients that deliver this type of functionality can be slow to biodegrade. So the design challenge is about making sure we have products that meet the required functionality but also meet a high level of biodegradability.

For example, in laundry, the biggest challenge is with the use of polymers and high-performance ingredients that are added to create concentrated products. These make them more effective and lower the carbon footprint of the product, but polymers can be slow to biodegrade.

We need to reinvent the chemistry of clean

Scientists at SEAC and in our Material Science teams are developing the latest research and technologies to constantly improve our understanding of which ingredients biodegrade. But this is not something we can achieve alone.

So we’re working in collaboration with suppliers, partners and academia to see if there are existing chemistries that could meet our needs or whether we have to create entirely new solutions. This could involve designing ingredients – the molecules themselves – to make them easier to break down.

“For every product that currently includes non-biodegradable materials, we will either remove the ingredient and replace it with a similar biodegradable alternative or reformulate the product,” says Ian Malcomber, SEAC’s Chemical Safety Programme Director. “With any changes we do make, the newly formulated product will be safe and perform equally well, if not better, than the current products consumers are used to.”

One in, one out isn’t always possible

Taking one ingredient out and replacing it with a biodegradable alternative may be possible but, in some cases, there may be no direct replacement and it could be almost impossible to create one. In these situations, we’ll need to meet the functionality in a different way.

As Ian Howell, Home Care Science & Technology R&D Director, explains: “Our formulations are very finely tuned. You might take something out and put something else in and it completely disturbs the whole system. So you will need to re-optimise the formulation. It might need a different surfactant ratio, perhaps, or other ingredients might need to be changed. It is a huge but exciting challenge.”

An opportunity to create a circular economy

Biodegradability is the end of the product lifecycle, but what about the start? We’re transforming how our cleaning and laundry products are created through our Carbon Rainbow, our framework to replace carbon derived from fossil fuels with renewable and recycled carbon.

As Ian says: “Our commitments to make product formulations biodegradable and shift to 100% renewable carbon are closely linked, enabling us to close the loop and achieve a true circular economy of our formulations.”

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