BP oil spill: The legacy

Biotech firm looks to clean oil out of laundry detergent

Sarah Gardner Apr 21, 2011
BP oil spill: The legacy

Biotech firm looks to clean oil out of laundry detergent

Sarah Gardner Apr 21, 2011

Kai Ryssdal: The year anniversary of the BP oil spill this week reminds us of a couple of uncomfortable realities. Drilling for oil is an inherently dirty business. It’s hard to do and getting harder. It’s expensive. You throw in the squeeze the global economy feels when prices do what they’re doing right now, and that’s plenty reason to go looking for alternatives. And not just alternatives to oil as fuel.

Marketplace’s Sarah Gardner reports from the Sustainability Desk.

Sarah Gardner: Chemical makers know that someday we’ll run out of this miraculous goo called petroleum. But replacing it? That’s not so easy. It’s a key ingredient in almost every consumer product you can think of — diapers, pantyhose, prescription drugs, shampoos, lipsticks.

David Fridley: If a product hasn’t been made with oil, it was certainly transported with oil. And without petroleum lubricants, the entire country would simply grind to a halt from friction.

David Fridley is a scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.

Fridley: It’s more than an addiction. It truly is the essence of what we consider a modern world.

But industries are slowly beginning to come up with alternatives. In fact, you’re probably using them and don’t even know it.

Nathan Reese: Basically we have our five washers here.

If you visit a biotech company called Novozymes, you’ll find men… doing laundry. That’s because Novozymes makes industrial enzymes.

These energetic little proteins have been used for years to make everything from beer to ethanol. Now, they’re replacing some of the petrochemicals in laundry soap. So for Novozymes researcher Nathan Reese, doing laundry isn’t a chore. It’s a chemistry experiment.

Reese: To do a wash we add our detergent, our enzymes and then different swatches that have different stains on them. For example, maybe grass or cocoa or blood or something like that.

You can think of enzymes as nature’s Pac-Men. They love to chew up fats and starches and proteins, says marketing manager Teresa Neal.

Teresa Neal: They do go after the stain and they can find their way into the stain and basically change the chemistry of the stain, break it up, so that it can be lifted away from the clothes.

Neal, Reese and their colleagues are based in the small town of Franklinton, N.C. But Novozymes is headquartered in Denmark. And it sells its enzymes to detergent makers all over the world. The company’s slogan is “Rethink Tomorrow.” Neal says their customers are starting to do just that.

Neal: We’ve had a lot of growth mainly because a lot of the manufacturers are looking for alternatives to petroleum-based ingredients. So we are seeing a very large increase in demand for our detergent enzymes.

Those enzymes are produced in industrial-sized fermentation tanks here. They’re not a one-to-one replacement for the petrochemicals that foam up, clean and dispense dirt and grime. But Neal says they can replace up to 50 percent. She says they can also strengthen those so-called “natural detergents,” the ones you might not trust with your kids’ grass stains.

Steen Riisgard: Furthermore, they can use at lower washing temperatures.

CEO Steen Riisgard is fluent in the science of laundry as well.

Riisgard: So that they, the consumers, can save dollars on their energy bill.

Yep, it’s enzymes behind all those new “coldwater” detergents on the supermarket shelf. But there’s a catch: Enzymes aren’t cheap. Clorox’s Greenworks brand is a Novozymes customer.

Heidi Dorosin, a marketing exec at Clorox, says Greenworks’ detergent costs about 10-20 percent more than the stuff with lots of petrochemicals. And Dorosin says sales have been, well, lukewarm.

Heidi Dorosin: We launched Greenworks at the time that sustainability was really kicking into high gear, it was the time when Al Gore was doing his thing. We really felt this was going to transform cleaning.

Then the recession hit. That hurt Novozymes’ sales last year too, but CEO Steen Riisgaard told us business is bouncing back. Riisgaard says the Clorox’s and Procter & Gamble’s of the world can’t afford to abandon enzymes altogether because oil, he believes, will just keep getting pricier.

Riisgard: And eventually they’ll have to pass that on to the consumers that will experience much higher prices for washing powders.

And for Riisgaard, washing powder is just the beginning. His company is also betting big on enzymes to converts things like corn stalks into biofuels. These kinds of petro-alternatives aren’t necessarily some Scandanavian soap bubble of an idea. Dupont, one of the biggest chemical companies in the world, just bought Novozymes’ chief competitor.

In Franklinton, N.C., I’m Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.

Ryssdal: Now that you know what an enzyme is we’ve got another quiz for you. Click here and test your smarts on men, women and laundry.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.