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natural vs synthetic

It is a common misconception that an ingredient from a plant or other naturally-derived source will necessarily be superior in terms of human safety, biodegradability, aquatic toxicity and sustainability than one from a petrochemical source.

Vegetable oil raw materials are already extensively used by cleaning product manufacturers. Although ‘green purchasing’ criteria sometimes specify ‘naturally’ based materials, each ingredient must be assessed on its individual merit, and on how it affects the sustainability of the whole formulation, not simply on whether it is from a plantderived or petrochemical source.

To illustrate:

In terms of sustainability, the energy used in processing and transport must be assessed for each material.The fossil fuel consumed in providing some ‘renewable’ materials can be very substantial. Plantations to grow palm trees and coconuts, for example, to provide vegetable oil raw materials take a great deal of space. Clearing rainforest to create new plantations can be highly unsustainable and damage biodiversity. Of the land currently used for growing non-food crops it is not necessarily clear which crops, such as those providing biofuels or feedstocks for chemical factories, will offer the best returns in terms of improving sustainability and preserving petroleum resources.

Essentially all ‘natural’ ingredients that could be used in cleaning products involve some element of chemical processing. Many synthetic ingredients have been developed to be better performing, and thus potentially more sustainable, versions of natural substances.

Plants and trees naturally produce many compounds that are hazardous and have other characteristics which would be regarded as an undesirable trait for a cleaning product ingredient. For example, some garden plants contain natural toxins to guard against being eaten and are very poisonous to humans. Some natural substances produced by plants are highly poisonous to fish and could be environmentally very damaging if released in the wrong place. Many chemicals found in nature would not meet the standards of biodegradability now required of surfactants in cleaning products and some would be classified as having the potential to bioaccumulate.

Further reading - Meeting Natural Expectations