Unilever eyes optimised enzymes in bid for fossil-fuel-free laundry products

Unilever has announced a new partnership with protein design start-up Arzeda, which will see it test new enzymes in cleaning and laundry products in order to lower their carbon footprint.

Persil, Comfort, Sunlight, Surf and Seventh Generation formulations with the enzymes will be tested 

Persil, Comfort, Sunlight, Surf and Seventh Generation formulations with the enzymes will be tested 

The partnership, announced today (13 June), will run for three years. It will see Unilever applying Arzeda’s so-called “digital biology” innovations in researching and developing new formulations for cleaning and laundry products, intended for brands such as Persil, Comfort, Surf, Sunlight and Seventh Generation.

Arzeda takes enzymes from nature and “optimises” them to deliver added performance benefits. In the context of laundry and cleaning products, benefits will be an enhanced ability to break down stains made from fats and protein chains on fabrics and hard surfaces. The firm also uses artificial intelligence to measure and optimise the performance of the altered enzymes.

According to Arzeda, the adding of optimised enzymes to product formulations could halve the number of ingredients required to make the product. This could help Unilever avoid the need for some fossil-based cleaning ingredients.

Unilever committed last year to replacing 100% of the carbon derived from fossil fuels in its cleaning and laundry products with captured, natural and recycled carbon within a decade. Of course, if it can use less carbon in the first instance, this will also contribute to the delivery of this commitment.

“This partnership is an exciting step forward as we work to transform our cleaning and laundry business to be superior, sustainable and affordable to all,” Unilever Home Care’s president Peter ter Kulve said. “We look forward to working with Arzeda in developing a new generation of ultra-performing cleaning and laundry products with an environmental impact a fraction of the size of current products."

Since announcing its ‘Clean Future’ plans for eliminating carbon derived from fossil fuels from laundry and cleaning products, Unilever has posted updates on several innovative projects and partnerships that will help it to transition.

Owned brand Persil launched a new liquid formulation made from plant-based stain removers and biodegradable ingredients late last year. The formulation was also concentrated, allowing the use of smaller bottles. Then, this April, Unilever unveiled a laundry capsule made using emissions captured from heavy industry, as part of a partnership with Lanzatech in Asia. A separate partnership focused on sustainable polymers in liquid formations (PLFs) has been formed in Europe, convened by the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC).

Unilever has calculated that ingredients containing fossil-based carbon account for 46% of the life-cycle emissions of its home care product portfolio. Should the ‘Clean Future’ vision be achieved, the life-cycle emissions footprint of the portfolio could be cut by 20%.

You can find out more about how the scaling processes  for different kinds of alternative carbon could work in edie’s recent video interview with Unilever’s Home Care's R&D Director Ian Howell.

The RSC's net-zero commitment

The announcement from Unilever and Arzeda comes hot on the heels of a commitment from the RSC to deliver a net-zero value chain by 2040.

Announced late last week, the new ambition has seen the Society joining the UN’s Race to Zero initiative. It is underpinned by an interim commitment to reduce absolute emissions by at least 50% by 2030, against a 2019 baseline.

“This will mean considering absolutely everything we do, from international travel to the suppliers we work with, and it will be a joint effort,” RSC president Professor Tom Welton said. “We all need to consider the climate impact of our actions – and minimise it where possible.”

The RSC will publish a report later this year including information on its current carbon footprint and its plans for reducing emissions in the coming years and decades.

In the meantime, the Society has become one of the founding supporters of the new Professional Bodies Climate Charter. The Charter has three overarching commitments: charting a path to sustainability for member organisations, in line with a 1.5C trajectory; speaking with a unified voice to policymakers and the public, and enabling sustainable growth. With more than 13 million professionals belonging to a UK membership association, the Charter could impact up to half of the UK’s working population once additional institutions sign up.

Sarah George



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