Surfactants (surface-active agents) can be derived from both petrochemical
feedstocks and renewable resources (e.g. oleochemicals). Renewable resource
s have the advantage that they contribute less to the greenhouse effect if
harvested and grown sustainably. When comparing the contribution to the gre
enhouse effect, the life-cycle of the product should be analysed, covering
the CO2 emissions from production, use and degradation after disposal. In t
his paper, the use phase is only included for washing and cleaning agents s
ince it is practically impossible to cover all the utilization processes fo
r surfactants. At present, biomass-derived raw materials account for about
one third of the material feedstocks for surfactant production in Germany.
Within this partial life-cycle inventory, it was calculated that fossil CO2
emissions of the commercially most important surfactants produced in Germa
ny amounted to 1.5 Mt in 1996 (versus total chemical industry emissions of
125 Mt, including the equivalents of feedstock energy). Already today, the
production of oleochemical feedstocks avoids the emission of 0.35 Mt of fos
sil CO2 p.a. (1996). Total substitution of oleochemical surfactants for pet
rochemical surfactants would enable a further reduction of 34%, reducing ab
solute emissions to 0.99 Mt. This is an overestimation of today's technical
potential, but it might be attainable in the longer term. For surfactant a
pplications in laundry detergents, lowering wash temperatures is also an in
teresting strategy to reduce CO2 emissions. (C) 1999 Elsevier Science B.V.
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