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The Great Divide: Conventional vs Eco-friendly Chemicals

What is that acrid smell in the corridor after a housekeeper is done sweeping the floor? Why do I feel uncomfortable when I am the first to enter the office, immediately after the morning’s cleaning? After repeatedly sanitising my hands, why does my skin feel so dry?

These are the questions people are asking themselves.

The connection between cleaning and health has grown to include an understanding of the connection between the choice of cleaning chemical and health. Is there an alternative to the harsh products that have been the gold standard so far?

We asked Kishore Bhatia, MD & CEO, Zoono India, Kedar Kulkarni, Director, Rutu Biosystems Pvt Ltd and Ashish Saraogi, General Manager, Manisha International to explain the rationale behind choosing eco-friendly cleaning chemicals, the reason for their rise as a product of choice, common myths that plague their popularity and how to assess whether a product is genuinely eco-friendly.

In the next five years, most manufacturers will have introduced a range of eco-friendly cleaners, owing to consumer demand.

Kedar Kulkarni


What is an eco-friendly chemical?

Opinions vary, but the broad consensus is that this term refers to any chemical which is biodegradable in nature, is non-toxic to humans, animals and the environment, and does not have any residual ill effects. It is generally manufactured from plant-based sources, but this may not always be the case.

Saraogi turns the term itself on its head: “The word ‘chemical’ usually refers to something synthetic and hazardous. Our product is 100% natural and made from plant-based enzymes. We prohibit ourselves and discourage customers from using the word ‘chemical’; rather, use the term ‘natural cleaners’.”

Fine print of ingredients

It is one thing for a product to advertise itself as eco-friendly and another for it to actually be eco-friendly. Its constituents need to match exacting standards to merit that description.

According to Kulkarni, “The ingredients of such products are primarily plant-based or made from renewable sources, rather than from petrochemicals. Any form of harsh chemical like hydrochloric acid is a strict no-no. The synergy created by the ingredients together in the final product has to be non-toxic and non-polluting as well.”

If the main constituent is an enzyme, it may have either plant or bacterial origins. Bio-enzymatic products use a combination of enzymes, which break complex waste particles into smaller units, which can be easily digested by ‘safe’ strains of bacteria.

Zoono’s eco-friendly hand sanitiser is another kettle of fish altogether. Bhatia shared, “Our products are made from 99% deionised water and 1% quaternary ammonium compound. They do not contain alcohol or triclosan.”

This water-based sanitiser works by adding a long-lasting, antibacterial protective layer to hands and surfaces. Once dry, it acts like a layer of microscopic pins that attract, pierce and kill pathogens – the same principle as a pin popping a balloon – and is designed to provide enhanced protection between routine hand washing and surface cleaning.”

Not just eco-friendly constituents

From the production stage to final degeneration after usage, every step of the product’s life cycle must meet sustainability norms for it to be called eco-friendly. Using renewable energy in the manufacturing process is a plus. The final product must also demonstrate its biodegradability within a specific time frame.

“The type of packaging used also influences its eco-friendly status. Recycled and recyclable materials are commonly used in the packaging of such products”, added Kulkarni.

Myth #1: Eco-friendly products are less efficient

All agreed that the biggest misconception about eco-friendly cleaning products is that they are less efficient compared to conventional cleaning products. For example, Zoono has approximately 190 test results from accredited laboratories around the world which validate the efficacy of its products. Added Bhatia: “This also disproves the myth that only alcohol-based sanitisers can kill microorganisms.”

A conventional cleaner creates a bio-film on the surface being cleaned; under that biofilm, germs flourish. Whereas an enzyme-based product cleans at the source.

Ashish Saraogi


Myth #2: More-than-conventional dosage is needed

There is talk floating around that eco-friendly chemicals need to be applied more liberally than conventional ones, and that higher-than-recommended concentrations need to be used for them to be really effective.

Saraogi stated: “Compared to a conventional cleaner, a normal amount of spray of our enzyme-based glass cleaner will deliver much better results. In terms of consumption, the quantity will be almost the same.”

Myth #3: They cannot handle tough stains

The science is clear. Eco-friendly chemicals that are of organic origin are effective against stains which are organic in nature. If they are inorganic, these products won’t work.

There are some stains, such as those on wood or stones, which have existed and persisted for a long time. Saraogi said point-blank: “There is no chemical – conventional or eco-friendly – which can clean those in a single application. It will take several applications and be cleaned over a period of time.”

Eco-friendly sanitisers are usually priced on a slightly higher side as the process to manufacture them is more cumbersome than that for traditional sanitisers.

Kishore Bhatia


Myth #4: They have short-lived action

Zoono’s sanitiser has been demonstrated to have some positive residual effect for as long as 30 days after application.

Who certifies products as eco-friendly?

In India and abroad, there is no single authority. There are some which certify the product after analysing its origin, methods used to manufacture, what other chemicals have been added to the active constituent, whether the chemicals used are food-safe, environment-safe, human-safe, non-mutagenic etc.

In India, CII-GBC runs a certification program called Green Pro, which rates products on the extent of greenness. The certification process involves the study of the product life cycle from production to disposal, lab analysis to test its toxicity, how it will react if disposed of in nature etc.

The USDA Certified Biobased Product label, displayed on a product certified by USDA, is designed to provide useful information to consumers about the biobased content of the product. A business with a biobased product that meets USDA criteria may apply for certification, allowing them to display the label. This label assures a consumer that the product contains a verified amount of renewable biological ingredients. Consumers can trust the label to mean what it says because manufacturer’s claims concerning the bio-based content are third-party certified and strictly monitored by USDA.

Eco-friendly = pocket-friendly?

The short answer is, no. In some product categories, the price of the eco-friendly alternative may be 40-100% more than conventional choice. Bhatia explained: “Such sanitisers are usually priced on a slightly higher side as the process to manufacture them is more cumbersome than that for traditional sanitisers.”

Conventional products typically require the mixing of two or three mass-produced chemical constituents. On the other hand, eco-friendly products often rely on plant-based raw materials which are not produced on an industrial scale. Hence, investment is high and output is low, moving the price scale to the higher end.

The irony of this situation is that for eco-friendly options to be more affordable for the cleaning community, more and more of the latter will have to loosen up its purse strings to buy up larger volumes, thus driving down prices.

Then, why buy?

Driven by ever-increasing evidence of occupational and lifestyle diseases, the world is moving towards organic, nature-based choices in every sphere of life. Premium buyers are willing to pay more for fewer side effects.

Explained Saraogi: “A conventional cleaner creates a bio-film on the surface being cleaned; under that biofilm, germs flourish. Whereas an enzyme-based product cleans at the source.”

Simply put, the payoff in choosing an eco-friendly cleaner is reducing the risk of falling ill because of something used for cleaning, which was meant to prevent people from falling ill. What an office spends on eco-friendly cleaners can be recovered through lesser absenteeism, better productivity at work because of a more pleasant work environment and so on.

Who is the target customer?

The inherent benefits of adopting these products naturally make them the product of choice in facilities where people find themselves most exposed to cleaning chemicals.

“Currently, the home care segment has the highest demand for cleaning products in the eco-friendly range”, opined Kulkarni. “I think this is mostly because people want to keep their homes, families and pets away from harsh chemicals. The industrial cleaning segment is also adapting eco-friendly cleaners. In the next five years, most manufacturers will have introduced a range of eco-friendly cleaners, owing to consumer demand.”

Similarly, the healthcare, hospitality, office, transport, restaurant, education and childcare segments are poised to become big-time consumers of these product lines. It goes without saying that the potential institutional market is much bigger.

Saraogi’s words are a harbinger of the massive uptake of eco-friendly chemicals one may expect in the near future: “When we started manufacturing these products two-and-a-half years ago, we had not expected to be producing these volumes or at this scale. This product segment is growing very fast.”

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