Few consumers check the labels on household products to see where their goods were made, and perhaps even fewer are familiar with how they’re manufactured. If consumers were to take a closer look at the processing behind household products they would discover one surprising and indispensable component: enzymes.
The label that some consumers are already familiar with is “biobased,” which indicates that a product contains ingredients derived from living matter, such as plants. That includes enzymes, natural and biodegradable protein molecules that enable an array of biochemical reactions. Scientists have optimized enzymes used in manufacturing applications across numerous industries to lower costs and increase efficiency. Through decades of research and proven effectiveness, industrial enzymes have achieved manufacturing benefits – that before were not possible or affordable – by using natural ingredients in many of today’s household and commercial products, ranging from laundry detergents to plastics to automotive fuel.
The USDA estimates that there are more than 20,000 biobased products on the market. Released in May 2011, the Genencor Household Sustainability Index measured consumers’ awareness of, and interest in green and biobased products. The survey found that four in 10 American consumers and about a third of Canadian consumers have heard of the term “biobased” to describe products or product ingredients used in clothing, cleaning and personal care products, and fuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel. A majority of consumers in both countries are confident of environmental claims of green products, the study found.
The sustainable benefits of biobased products, enabled by enzymes, address many of the crucial issues facing manufacturers in the 21st century. The cost of fuel is soaring, prompting an increase in operating and manufacturing costs. Worldwide demand for consumer goods is also increasing, further driving up the price of resources needed to manufacture these products. Industrial enzymes address these challenges by reducing the resources required in the manufacturing process, as well as lower carbon emissions. The World Wildlife Fund reported in 2009 that industrial biotechnology, including the application of enzymes, can save the planet up to 2.5 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year. In addition to having a smaller carbon footprint, enzymes increase a company’s profit margin by lowering energy costs and reducing the resources needed in manufacturing.
Industrial applications of enzymes contribute to sustainability in a number of key applications that include household items, food, beverages, textiles and ethanol. In laundry detergents, for example, enzymes can reduce the temperature needed to effectively clean clothes, saving 32 million tons of carbon emissions from water heating, according to the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO). Applied in beer brewing, enzymes also can eliminate the entire barley malting stage, saving more than 350,000 tons of carbon emissions, according to BIO.
Enzymes are also helping to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil. Enzymes play a crucial role as the agent converting starch to ethanol a leading alternative to gasoline. Ethanol also burns cleaner than traditional gasoline and emits 19 to 52 percent less carbon emissions than gasoline, according to U.S. Department of Energy. Additionally, enzymes can replace petroleum-based ingredients found in numerous household products further helping to reduce our need for oil imports.
Enzymes will play an increasingly significant role in manufacturing as global resources become more limited and expensive. By 2050, the world’s population will reach 9 billion, and we will need to find new ways to support this growth with limited resources. Biotechnology companies are actively researching and discovering new solutions to address the environmental impacts and rising production prices that affect the affordability of products we rely on every day. As the use of the industrial enzyme continues to advance and it is applied in more biobased products, there is no doubt we can achieve a more sustainable manufacturing process and leave a smaller carbon footprint for future generations.
Tjerk de Ruiter is CEO of Genencor, the Palo Alto, CA based biotechnology division part of Dupont’s Industrial Biosciences Business Unit.