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Shell and Henkel partner to take fossil fuels out of your laundry detergent

A row of laundry machines in a laundromat in black and white
Image credit: Unsplash

When you think of fossil fuels, images of massive oil and gas refineries and coal plants likely come to mind. But fossil fuels show up everywhere in everyday items, from shampoo to fabrics, from batteries to laundry detergent.

The culprits of fossil fuels in detergent are known as surfactants: dirt-removing chemicals with properties that scrub the grime from clothes. The surfactants are interestingly enough, a product of crude oil.

That’s why oil giant Shell is agreeing to replace up to 200,000 tonnes of fossil feedstocks with renewable feedstocks, removing the oil from surfactants for Henkel’s largest laundry brands: all, Purex, and Persil.

The inclusion of Persil aligns with parent company Unilever's 2020 announcement to eliminate all fossil fuels from its cleaning products by 2030.

The agreement is a part of Henkel’s broader sustainability goals which pledge efforts toward decarbonization, circularly designed packaging, zero net deforestation, and biodiversity conservation efforts. In its latest sustainability report, the company details goals like 100% recyclable and reusable packaging by 2025 and 100% renewable and CO2-free power generation by 2030.

It also reports that as of 2021, 43% of surfactants in Henkel’s laundry detergents and household cleaners are based on renewable raw materials. The five-year agreement with Shell may increase this number. It’s a “landmark collaboration on climate protection,” advancing Henkel’s share of renewable-based ingredients Henkel’s Chief Sustainability Officer, Ulrike Sapiro said.

He adds, “This is an important, concrete step toward realizing our vision of a regenerative planet through a climate-friendly business model. Working together with partners like Shell will help get us there faster.”

The science behind surfactants is interesting. The type of surfactant commonly used in laundry detergent is the unpronounceable alkylbenzenesulfonate, which consists of a “head” and a “tail.” One repels water while binding to the dirt on clothes, and the other attracts water, allowing the detergent to dissolve and wash away with the dirt.

It’s surprising that this cleaning agent is derived from dirty crude oil and gasoline. Like every fossil fuel product, creating detergent in this way increases emissions. Shell estimates that replacing 200,000 tonnes of fossil feedstocks with the raw renewable surfactant can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 120,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent over the five-year agreement.

To put this into perspective, that would be the equivalent of 13,502,869 gallons of gasoline consumed. It would be the same as 132,769,107 pounds of coal burned, or comparable to the annual emissions from 25,856 gas cars.

While the gas comparison is just a small fraction of the vast amount of gas the U.S. consumes in just a single day, it shows how everything, down to laundry detergent plays a part in emissions and subsequent global warming.

The renewable surfactants will be produced at Shell’s Louisiana facility. The feedstocks will be replaced starting this year and will be used in combination with fossil fuel feedstocks and Shell’s independent accounting process.

While it will be accounted for independently, the companies say the “mass balance approach” will be verified by a third-party certification organization such as (but not limited to) ISCC, REDcert, and SCS global services.

According to Robin Mooldijk, Executive Vice President of Shell Chemicals and Products, this is Shell’s "first-of-its-kind" commercial scale deal for renewable-based chemicals anywhere in the world.

He adds, "Our collaboration with Henkel is a fantastic example of the opportunity for future growth. We are investing in our chemicals facilities, including on the U.S. Gulf Coast, to scale up Shell's sustainable chemicals capabilities and deliver the integrated and sustainable offers our customers increasingly want."

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