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Future of Washing: Sustainable Laundry Part 4 – Perspectives on Detergents

The Future of Washing Initiative held its 4th seminar, “Future of Washing – from the Perspective of Detergents,” on 24 May 2021. The seminar was attended by more than 170 participants representing private and academic sectors, and was moderated by Dr. Yohei Kaneko, ESG Division, Kao Corporation. 

Academic Presentations

The seminar was kicked-off with a presentation by Dr. Fumiko Kasuga, Director of the Future Earth Japan Hub. Dr. Kasuga introduced the objectives and past activities of the Future of Washing Initiative, since its launch in December 2018. In addition, she explained that the Initiative has been searching for models of sustainable washing by considering various environmental and social aspects—including, the use of water and energy, and the declining Japanese birthrate and aging population. She also stated that the cultural environment should be considered for sustainable washing, including differences in cleanliness values and countries’ washing conditions.

Mr. Isao Yamada, Senior Principal Research Scientist of R&D-Household Products Research, Kao Corporation, gave a presentation on “Evolution of Laundry Detergents and their Ingredients.” During the 1950s, in Japan, laundry detergents using petrochemical materials such as petroleum and natural gas became popular; however, they were not easily dissolved and led to foam in rivers and sewage treatment plants. As a result, this led the world to develop more easily degradable surfactants that can be broken down by microorganisms. The Japan Soap and Detergent Association has been conducting environmental monitoring of surfactants since 1998 to confirm that there are no new environmental problems. In 1987, compacted laundry detergents were introduced to Japan, and the industry has been leading the world in saving resources, energy, and reducing environmental emissions of detergents. Kao Corporation also conducted a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of their products and found out that many products such as shampoos and detergents use a large amount of water. As a result, the company developed a laundry detergent that can reduce the number of rinses from two to one. At the same time, the detergent was made ultra-compact to reduce the use of resources. Kao Corporation has also commercialized a new, sustainable surfactant called “Bio-IOS,” that is highly soluble in water, while retaining its high affinity to oils.

Ms. Akiko Minami, Officer of Forest Programme, WWF Japan, gave a presentation on the theme of “Sustainable Procurement of Raw Materials.” Ms. Minami reported that in tropical regions, such as the Amazon, Southeast Asia, and Africa, natural forests are being lost on a large scale due to forest fires and logging for expansion of farmland and plantations. She also reported that 420 million hectares of forests have been lost since 1990, and 10 million hectares per year (45 times the size of Tokyo) have been lost in the last five years. The production of palm oil, the world’s largest producer of vegetable oil, has caused deforestation due to large-scale developments. Indonesia and Malaysia account for 85% of the world’s palm oil production (70 million tons per year), and this had led to the loss of 46% of the natural forest in Borneo, as of 2015. In order to produce oil palm, farmers need to cut down trees, and in some cases, trees are illegally set on fire. Furthermore, when peat swamp forests are developed for palm oil plantations, it’s not easy to put out, and a large amount of smoke and toxic gases are generated, creating a greater environmental impact. Considering these situations, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was established to promote the production and use of sustainable palm oil. The RSPO is a group of palm oil producers, manufacturers, retailers, and NGOs, that establishes environmental and social standards for certification. As of April 2021, the number of members in Japan was 246, the fourth largest in the world. In addition, the Japan Sustainable Palm Oil Network (JaSPON) was established in 2019 in Japan with about 50 organizations participating.

Dr. Yoko Yamaguchi, Professor of the Department of the Science of Living, Kyoritsu Women’s Junior College, gave a lecture on the theme of “Fine Bubbles and Cleaning.” Fine bubbles (FB) is a general term used for microbubbles (MB), or bubbles with a diameter of 1 to 100 μm, and ultrafine bubbles (UFB), or bubbles with a diameter of smaller than 1 μm. FBs are already being used in a variety of fields, including environmental fields, such as soil and groundwater purification and factory wastewater treatment; washing fields, such as toilet cleaning, vegetable and food cleaning, and washing machines; beauty fields, such as face and scalp washing; and also medical fields. Furthermore, fine bubbles can be mixed with oxygen, ozone, carbon dioxide, and other gases, which opens up a wide range of possible uses. On the other hand, finding the conditions for when MB works well is still a challenge. In an experiment, adding surfactants to MB water improved the cleaning power; however, there was no obvious synergistic effect from the addition of surfactants. Also, another experiment showed ozone UFB has a high cleaning power; however, there are still issues with the rate of cleanliness. Dr. Yamaguchi stated that it is necessary to continue research on the use of functional water that can assist in detergent usage, shorten washing time, and promote sustainable washing.

Panel Discussion

Based on the theme of the three presentations, a panel discussion was led by Dr. Masahiko Hirao, Professor in the School of Engineering at The University of Tokyo. Mr. Hiroshi Kamizawa, a doctorate student of the Graduate School of Systems Life Sciences, Kyushu University, served as youth representative on the panel. During the discussion, panelists welcomed questions from the audience. One attendee asked the reason why concentrated liquid detergent is selling better than super-concentrated liquid detergent. Mr. Yamada pointed out that although it is preferable to use super-concentrated liquid detergent from the viewpoint of LCA, there are marketing issues in setting the price. For example, he stated that normally, the super-concentrated liquid detergents are more expensive. In addition, he also pointed out that consumers often use detergents in ways that manufacturers do not intend, such as the required amount. Dr. Hirao stated that given the environmental advantages of single rinse detergent, detergent manufacturers and washing machine manufacturers need to work together for the benefit of consumers who are unable to set up their washing machines for a single rinse setting. Mr. Yamada stated that Kao Corporation has been conducting a consumer survey regarding washing habits, and that he realizes the need of making further efforts to convey information to consumers. 

Regarding a question on the lack of information about sustainable procurement of raw materials such as RSPO amongst consumers, Ms. Minami stated that it is difficult to disseminate information to consumers and public. She explained that efforts have been made to raise awareness through retailers; however, it is not easy for companies change branding. She also pointed out that, in Europe, the switch to RSPO certified oil is almost complete; however, in Japan, it is necessary to involve the food industry, which is a major user of palm oil. Mr. Kamizawa said that the raw materials comprising laundry detergents are not discussed among students. For example, he stated that while he thinks consumers care if clothes do not shrink and that stains are removed after washing, consumers may not really think about a detergent’s raw materials. Dr. Hirao pointed out that it is an issue that raw materials are not considered by consumers when purchasing laundry detergents.

Regarding the new cleaning method using fine bubbles, a question was asked whether it would be possible to clean without using detergent in the future. Dr. Yamaguchi explained that it is currently difficult to clean without using surfactants at all, but that combining surfactants and fine bubbles will greatly reduce energy consumption. In addition, she also mentioned that there is research combining alkaline electrolyzed water or ultrasonic waves with fine bubbles, and that practical applications are currently being considered. Mr. Yamada pointed out that there are various types of household stains, including nursing care and baby, along with an appropriate cleaning method for each one. Further, he stated that a big challenge is developing new cleaning methods that consider all the different types of stains.


In conclusion, Dr. Hirao stated that the discussion laid out the complex, multifaceted nature of laundry. Furthermore, he stated that it is important to continue discussing sustainable laundry by bringing various actors together to address not only the environmental impact, but also the economic and societal one too.