Ben Goldfarb: Ecover has lately expanded its work with microorganisms. What technologies are you using them for?
Tom Domen: One key example is our eco-surfactant. We’ve developed a chemical that uses locally available plant-based material and ferments it into an active ingredient. Instead of relying on classic chemistry, where you force molecules into a structure by applying heat and pressure, we’re letting the microorganisms do the work for us, like you would to make cheese or beer. The yeast we use isn’t genetically modified — it’s a wild organism that was found in a bumblebee’s nest, and that we applied in an industrial way.
BG: Your goal is to have all your products capable of returning to nature by 2020. How close are you to meeting that goal?
TD: Our products are already 80 to 100% bio-based. So for the liquids inside the bottle, we’re really close. The packaging itself is a different story. We don’t hold the sole solution to a closed loop packaging system. We’re trying to work with other companies, industries, and policymakers to improve recycling and bring biodegradable packaging into the equation.
BG: How do you innovate while remaining competitive with companies that are relying on mature, fossil fuel-based materials?
TD: That’s the biggest challenge we’re facing. We can now make bio-based chemicals and materials that have the same properties as materials that rely on fossils, but the pricing is an issue because we have low volumes of these emerging materials and the technologies behind them aren’t yet fully optimized. Our business model can accept some premium, but there’s a limit. Once you go above a 30% premium, you’re pricing yourself out of some markets. That’s a tough discussion to have internally.
BG: What are some of the other remaining challenges for a bio-based economy?
New challenges have popped up regarding renewable resources: for example, palm oil, which is putting pressure on land usage, soil degradation, and social structures in certain regions. Even if we make the switch from petrol to renewables, can we make all our materials out of renewables without putting too much pressure on land, soil, and water? There’s a tendency to pursue business as usual: to keep relying on fossil-based resources, but to make those fossil-based resources more efficient. To make bad things a little less bad. Currently we’re stuck in this paradigm where people say, biobased is not perfect, so let’s stick to what we know. Our drive is to go against that course. We call it Bright Green thinking -- where we make that shift to 100 percent biobased, while not compromising on delivering good products.
BG: Ecover has recently begun experimenting with detergent derived from algae. Where are those efforts?
TD: A lot of algae experiments get stuck on the efficiency problem, where they can’t grow the algae as efficiently yet as current crops, especially compared to palm oil. But there was one company, Solazyme, which was able to come close. Solazyme went searching for algae that were lying on the base of palm plants, to find a family link. That was the first opening for us to start looking at alternative feedstocks. The only way they were able to achieve such high efficiency was through genetic modification of algae, as well as a process where the algae are grown in closed ponds and consume sugars.
BG: How do you ensure that the feedstocks consumed by algae, like Brazilian sugarcane, don’t create the same deforestation problems as palm oil?
TD: That is a danger, but currently that’s not the case. Unlike palm oil, sugarcane is grown in a coastal region, not in tropical rainforests. The industry is actually trying to plant sugarcane on degraded lands to capture CO2 in the soil. Still, sugarcane is just an in-between step in the transition to consuming sugars from waste resources — what we call third-generation feedstocks. Even waste is not just waste anymore.
BG: Shortly after Ecover announced the algae initiative, you entered into a consulting arrangement with NGOs and scientific groups to discuss genetic engineering. Why did Ecover want to pursue those partnerships?
TD: We had to take a step back and show more transparency – we didn’t want to proceed with this technology if we had to keep it under the radar. We’ve been putting the challenges in front of a broad spectrum of thought leaders, NGOs, and scientists. What are the pros and cons? Is there a precautionary principle we need to take into account? Do we need to make sure there’s more legislation? These technologies have the potential to create a more sustainable future, but that needs to be discussed. We’re not trying to change opinions, we’re trying to understand why some people are concerned about using genetic modification, and why some are in favour. We want to have a nuanced debate.
Tom Domen is Innovation Manager, Ecover. Ben Goldfarb is a freelance science writer.
Image credit: Tom Domen / Ecover