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Green cleaning: powering the transition to circular chemistry


Unilever purchases the world’s first linear alkylbenzene (LAB) surfactant made from renewable carbon

Hands in a sink washing up dirty dishes

Until now the chemistry that provides the cleaning power of many laundry and detergent products has relied on ingredients derived from fossil fuels, also known as black carbon.

But a new range of renewable and biodegradable products from Spanish chemicals company Cepsa Química is helping to transition these carbon-intensive ingredients to circular chemistry.

This surfactant is known as NextLab linear alkylbenzene (LAB) and is made using green carbon derived from biomass. It’s renewable and biodegradable, and it provides the same properties and cleaning performance as LAB created from black carbon.

And in a potentially ground-breaking move for circular chemistry, Unilever is the first company to buy NextLab LAB and use it in our production.

Clear glass chemical bottles containing Lnear alkylbenzene (LAB) made from renewable carbon

What we’ll use LAB for

Unilever will use NextLab LAB to make linear alkylbenzene sulfonate (LAS), the world’s largest-volume synthetic surfactant and our most-used surfactant by volume too. It’s a key raw material used in many of our brands, including Persil, Cif and Sunlight.

That’s because surfactants are a vital ingredient in cleaning products. They work as ‘surface active agents’ to ‘stir up’ activity on the surface you’re cleaning, whether that’s a mark on a jumper or grease on a plate. Their activity breaks up stains and suspends the ‘dirt’ in water so that it can then be easily removed in the wash.

Currently, all LAS surfactant is made from black carbon from fossil fuels. Using LAB (which is created from renewable biomass to make LAS) is a more sustainable way to produce this key raw material. And that’s not all. In Unilever’s Home Care business, 46% of our cleaning products’ carbon footprint comes from the chemicals used to make them, so using chemicals derived from renewable feedstocks will reduce their carbon impact too.

Fuelling the transition to circular chemistry at scale

Achieving circular chemistry requires a period of transition and a phased approach to renewable and recycled feedstocks. As it stands, 85% of carbon demand in the chemical and derived materials sector is still met by black carbon from fossil sources. To create the change to more sustainable sources requires greater demand for it.

This means that Cepsa Química is using a ‘Mass Balance’ process to create NextLab LAB, which sees traditional black carbon sources blended and co-processed with sustainable green sources and tracked to ensure an appropriate volume of green carbon in the LAS produced. In other words, mass balance allows material from fossil fuels and from green or recycled sources to be mixed while the amount form each source is monitored.

“We are determined to accompany our customers in their progress towards the development of products that are increasingly more environmentally friendly,” says Cepsa Química Head of Chemicals Paloma Alonso.

Manufacturing surfactants in this way is not only the most viable short-term alternative to purely fossil-carbon derived products, it’s also a vital stepping stone in the shift from petrochemical to renewable feedstocks.

Using a mass balance approach allows us to start transitioning from black carbon sources to renewable alternatives that offer the same quality cleaning that our consumers expect and love in our brands

Unilever’s Head of Procurement, Home Care, Kirsten Tosin.

“We are delighted to be the first buyers of NextLab and hope fellow suppliers and industry players will follow suit in exploring more sustainable and affordable alternatives as we work together to transform the industry from being heavily reliant on fossil-fuels to using renewable and recycled sources instead."

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