OLEOCHEMICAL AND PETROCHEMICAL SURFACTANTS

 

Produced from palm oil, palm kernel oil and inedible tallow, oleochemical surfactants are often called "natural." Petrochemical surfactants, such as linear alkylbenzene sulfonate (LAS), are derived from crude oil and are sometimes refer red to as "synthetic." However, "natural" and "synthetic" are not accurate descriptions for these materials, nor should these labels be used to characterize environmental safety. Both types of materials are needed and will be available for use in detergen ts well into the future. Neither type of surfactant offers any inherent environmental advantage.

  • Both crude oil and vegetable-based oils originate in nature, making all feedstocks technically "natural." However, all surfactants are "synthetic" in that they result from complex processes -- distillation, fractionation and hydroge nation.
  • "Material resource value" is an accounting method measuring the amount of "fuel" resources, such as crude oil and natural gas, that are involved in the manufacture of a surfactant regardless of whether or not these resources are act ually used as fuel. Oleochemical feedstocks -- like palm oil and tallow -- are not typically used as fuels and are not counted in the material resource value. However, the crude oil feedstock used to produce LAS is included in the material resource value, making the material resource value for LAS about 10 times that of oleochemical surfactants.
  • Material resource values do not reflect increased energy use or enviromental emissions. In fact, LAS manufacture has much lower emissions to air, water and land. While LAS emissions totaled less than 184 kilograms (kg) for every 1,0 00 kg of product, emissions from oleochemicals range from 278 to over 379 kg. Process and transportation energy costs for LAS are also much lower than those for oleochemical surfactants.
  • Manufacture of any surfactant will release CO2 into the environment. The annual amount of CO2 released as a result of all surfactant manufacture is only 0.04 percent of the CO2 released annually by t otal energy use.
  • There is extensive data available to establish the environmental fate of LAS, which has a 30-year history of safe and effective use. However, little is known about the environmental fate of some newer oleochemical surfactants. Altho ugh all major surfactants, both oleochemical and petrochemical, biodegrade rapidly in aerobic environments, risk-assessment data, based on environmental monitoring, is generally available only for LAS. Without this data, it is not possible to reliably det ermine environmental safety.
  • Although petrochemical feedstocks are considered finite ("non-renewable"), the American Petroleum Institute reports that at today's rate of consumption, there is at least 200 years' worth of crude oil. Natural gas and coal, other po tential feedstocks, are similarly abundant. Furthermore, surfactant production for the whole year requires a mere 0.04 percent of the current annual petroleum use.
  • While oleochemical feedstocks have been labeled "renewable," the source of their future expansion is likely to be the replacement of tropical rain forests by palm plantations. Rain forests are not a finite resource and shrinking acr eage and habitat must be considered when evaluating the environmental impacts of oleochemical surfactants.
  • Production of natural oils would need to increase by about 4 million metric tons annually to keep pace with current surfactant demands. This would require a threefold increase in land used for surfactant production that would destro y natural habitats and could have a large negative impact on the environment, as rain forests contribute substantially to the Earth's climatic and ecological balance.
  • Testing surfactant performance in a broad range of uses, formulators and suppliers have found no clear advantage for any single feedstock. Moderate differences among surfactants relate to the manufacturing process rather than the ty pe of feedstock used. Continued availability of many different surfactants is essential for the detergent industry to develop cleaning products to meet specific market needs.
KEY REFERENCES 1. Pittinger, C. A., J. S. Sellers, D. C. Janzen, D. G. Koch, T. M. Rothgeb and M. L. Hunnicutt. "Environmental Life-Cycle Inventory of Detergent-Grade Surfactant Sourcing and Production." J. Amer. Oil Che m. Soc. 70(1) (January, 1993).

2. Schirber, C. A. "Use of 'Synthetic' vs. 'Natural' Feedstocks." Inform 2(12) (December 1991).

3. Vigon, B. W., D. A. Tolle, B. W. Cornaby, H. C. Latham, C. L. Harrison, T. L. Boguski, R. G. Hunt and J. D. Sellers. Life-Cycle Assessment: Inventory Guidelines and Principles. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) EPA/600/R-92/245, (February, 1993).

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