Clean and green 03 June 2019

Driven by regulatory, financial and business needs, a new generation of more environmentally-friendly industrial degreasants is emerging that matches the performance of traditional hydrocarbon products. It is giving operators a greener, cleaner choice for their products and processes

All but ubiquitous, industrial degreasants play an invaluable, if largely invisible, part in innumerable manufacturing and industrial processes. Over the course of its life, any mechanical moving component in some form or another will need to be cleaned or degreased. From OEM production parts that need to have light cutting oils and honing oils removed, right through to refurbishing commercial engines and everything in between, from food production to forestry, part washing and degreasing is used in almost every industry. There are estimated to be around 100,000 parts washing machines on rental service contracts in the UK alone.

Typically based on a hydrocarbon solvent or a heated detergent or caustic solution, today increasing health and safety and environmental requirements are driving the development of a new generation of sustainable degreasants.

Degreasants fall into a number of classifications, but the most commonly used are hydrocarbon-based organic and oxygenated solvents with a high solvency for greases and oils. Such solvents are widely used in industries such as engineering, textiles and footwear, pharmaceuticals, dry cleaning and inks and paints. They include acetone, toluene and perchloroethylene, commonly used in the dry cleaning industry. Traditional solvent-based cleaning machines run products like kerosene through them.

Solvents are found in many cleaning and degreasing products, from a DIY can of brake or clutch cleaner, right up to industrial manufacturing-scale degreasing equipment, and cleaning and degreasing accounts for around a quarter of global solvent production.

Hot washing machines have some form of detergent in water and are designed to work at 65°C to 90°C. Similarly, caustic cleaning machines – using caustic soda solutions for example – are also heated.

Enzymatic cleaning technology is another approach, but is not typically applied in traditional commercial cleaning applications. This approach is more common in specialist areas like the bicycle industry, which doesn’t create a large amount of crusted and heavily burnt-on carbon deposits. However, each of these technologies presents challenges for the operations manager.

Products like kerosene and many other commercially-available solvents are flammable and toxic hydrocarbons. They have a high volatile organic compound (VOC) content, generally speaking at 75% plus. This presents waste disposal issues, as well as health and safety considerations. Personal protective equipment (PPE), such as gloves and goggles, is vital when handling and using such products. Exposure to VOCs from degreasants can result in irritation of the skin, eyes and lungs, as well as effects such as headache and nausea, possibly even death in high concentrations. Long-term health effects include damage to the central nervous system, the kidneys, the liver or even cancer. VOCs can enter the air, water sources and soil and also contribute to ground-level ozone in the presence of sunlight and nitrogen oxides (NOx).

For heated systems, reaching and maintaining the required temperature of 65°C or more with a, say, 400 litre tank is costly in terms of energy use, and takes time. Using perhaps 11 kW or more and 24 hours a day, this process also has potential health and safety impacts. Such systems create fumes and there is the risk of scalding, as well as corrosive injuries.

As Tom Sands, founder and CEO of Safe Solvents, observes: “This is an industry that hasn’t really changed in 30 or 40 years, and has always been reliant on toxic hydrocarbon-based solvents or heated machines that emulsify the waste. Obviously, that waste has to be then treated as a hazardous product, while the cost of heating a large machine is astronomical.”


While there are a number of business drivers pushing the use of more environmentally-friendly solvents, such as health and safety considerations and operational costs, increasingly stringent policy is also driving change.

Various environmental and air quality legislation such as Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals (REACH) and the Clean Air Act in the USA are making it increasingly important for manufacturers to reduce VOC emissions from conventional solvents. Solvents are also subject to a variety of regulations concerning their storage and disposal, for example.

In Europe, two VOC directives exist, the Solvent Emission Directive and the Products Directive that relates to specific materials like degreasants that contain VOCs. The former establishes emission limit values for 20 different categories of installation that use solvents, including maximum levels for ‘fugitive’ emissions – degreasants lost from the process. In some cases, these limits have imposed emissions reductions that have prompted industries to adopt substitute products with a low solvent content or even a switch to solvent-free production processes.

Indeed, industries are more broadly considering if solvent-based products need to be used at all, or if they can be replaced by an alternative, less hazardous material, for example, based on water. This new generation of industrial degreasants is rapidly becoming accepted by the industry in regions like North America and Europe. For instance, according to the recent Green & Bio-based Solvents report from Transparency Market Research, the global eco solvents market is expected to expand at a CAGR of more than 7% through to 2023, when the market will be worth over US$8 billion annually.

Certainly, the traditional solvents industry is also claiming to have made significant progress in this regard. The industry has led a process that has seen a reduction of total VOC emissions in the EU by more than 60% since 1990, the European Solvents Industry Group (ESIG) says, adding that, on average, half as much solvent is used in manufacturing today, compared to 1980 figures.

“The drivers behind the move toward more environmentally-friendly cleaning products include the need to improve health and safety across the board. People don’t want these chemicals, which increase their insurance premiums and create more risk. Safer workshops are a big priority, reduction in VOCs backed by legislation is another key driver for better degreasing fluids. People prefer to use a cleaner, safer product and create safer staff environments,” says Sands.


The development of greener and environmentally-friendly industrial solvents that can perform as well as existing products offers companies an opportunity to improve working practices and reduce risks, cut costs for transportation, storage and disposal, as well as reducing emissions and their carbon footprint. All these factors are expected to see further emphasis at both board and regulatory level in the coming years. This trend is currently being driven by the big players but is expected to reach even smaller operations in the coming years. Says Sands: “What we are tending to find at the moment is the larger companies, like the larger SMEs and the blue chips and the big OEM manufacturers, they are already actively looking for ways that they can reduce risk, lead new legislation or improve their working environment.”

He continues: “What we’re expecting is that these medium and large businesses will adopt first and then it will spread. For smaller entities the degreasant choices at the moment is probably made predominantly on price. Traditional hydrocarbon products are typically cheaper, but I think eventually all industries and businesses will come into line over the coming years as it becomes increasingly unacceptable to use nasty products, and the cost of using them and disposing of them becomes much higher from a legislative position.”

Although green degreasants may not be suitable for every industry, managers should consider their use of industrial degreasants and select products with the lowest possible VOC count and highest flashpoint, for example.

Safe Solvents is one of a growing number of companies producing more sustainable solvents with low VOC levels. Businesses big and small are also starting to adapt to change their view on how their cleaning should be done. As Sands concludes: “A lot of companies are now actively looking for more acceptable cleaning solutions to replace the dated, toxic material-based technology of old. Awareness is growing that there are products out there that can replace these chemicals that people are used to, and they can help reduce monthly expenditure and other elements of risk in the business. In this day and age, there is just no reason why the chemicals you use in the machines you use to clean can’t be environmentally friendly.”

David Appleyard

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