Tuesday, 17 May 2011

What can Tyler Durden and Fight Club can tell us about Environmental Friendly Soap?

This human fat turns into...

This ecological bar of soap.

Tyler Durden: Now, ancient people found their clothes got cleaner if they washed them at a certain spot in the river. You know why?
Narrator: No.
Tyler Durden: Human sacrifices were once made on the hills above this river. Bodies burnt, water speeded through the wood ashes to create lye.
[holds up a bottle]
Tyler Durden: This is lye – the crucial ingredient.

Tyler was right about his soap history and the soap making process.  The lye combined with the melted fat of the bodies, till a thick white soapy discharge crept into the river.  Soaps for cleansing are obtained by treating vegetable or animal oils and fats with a strongly alkaline solution like lye. Fats and oils are composed of triglycerides: three molecules of fatty acids attached to a single molecule of glycerol. The alkaline solution, often lye, promotes a chemical reaction known as saponification. In saponification, fats are broken down (hydrolyzed) yielding crude soap. Fats are transformed into salts of fatty acids and glycerol is liberated, leaving glycerin as a byproduct.  The hydrophobic amphipathic fats form micelles around the dirt on your clothes or skin and wash it away.  Soap was traditionally made by a couple of different methods from saponifiable natural oils or fats from plants or animals viz. coconut, palm, cocoa butter, hemp oil, and shea butter, beef fat or the fat from sacrificed animals as the Roman's did.  So when watching this movie over again with this information I developed more appreciation for Tyler Durden's home chemistry skills and later his love for the environment when I saw the next couple of scenes. 

In the next couple of scenes Tyler Durden and well his alter ego Tyler Durden steal fat from the plastic surgeons office and make soap with lye?  They mold it (also making the iconic picture for the movie shown above) and sell it to a major department store. 'Tyler sold his soap to department stores at $20 a bar. Lord knows what they charged. It was beautiful. We were selling rich women their own fat asses back to them. (Fight Club)'  

So what does this have to with the environment, soaps and sustainability?  As mentioned soaps are derived from natural sources (including fat women) which are renewable and sustainable.  It was not until World War II that the price of soap increased significantly.  The supply of these oils dwindled and synthetic detergents were produced to replace the demand.  These synthetic detergents made from sodium salt of long chain benzene sulphonic acid or the sodium salt of a long chain alkyl hydrogen sulphate were also better to use because they did not leave a scum in hard water and also had better cleaning properties than natural soap.

Fast forwarding to the green revolution of today the synthetic detergents are deemed bad for the environment and not sustainable. So there are a number of things that formulators and environmental organizations are trying to do to reduce environmental impact:

Potential Solutions:  

1) use less detergent in the washing process (making of tablets and washing machines that require less products and water)


People do not change so easily.  Have you ever thought about how much soap you use?  Most of the time you severely overestimate the amount.  So industry made life easier.  Just add a tablet and also changed the quantity of the product needed.  Secondly, less water is used and less suds made with front end loading wash machines.  I even think in Canada you get a tax rebate for switching to these machines.  

2)  change the formulations completely a) change the surfactant to sustainable surfactants, b) eliminate phosphates c) possibly many other things I have not thought about.


Firstly, detergents come from non-renewable petroleum which are not sustainable and possibly more costly as the price of oil and manufacturing of surfactant product increases (e.g. Shell is a major supplier of the surfactant business).  Several new measures by the biggest surfactant suppliers Cognis, Total and Seppic  have tried to use APG (alkyl polyglucoside).  This non-ionic surfactant derived from vegetable oil and starch has been particularly successful in the last few years to make greener more sustainable surfactants and formulations.  These surfactants and formulations physicochemical properties need to be tested quickly for efficacy so the brand image can give the same cleaning properties or better than before.

Secondly, companies have to think about the cradle to grave of their products today.  Once the soap leaves your sink and goes down the drain you would want it to decompose and not leave an environmental impact.  Measures to make sure these surfactants are biodegradable (cleaved by certain enzymes in the environment) have been made.  The wonderful properties of phosphates made synthetic detergents a lot better.  However, phosphates are a problem since they have increased the amount of algae in many ponds.  Phosphates are now banned in 19 US states.  So today's soaps contain new surfactants to reduce the amount and environmental impact on the environment.

So why does Tyler Durden love the environment?  Tyler Durden's lye and human fat solution is nonetheless environmentally friendly alternative to manufactured detergents and cheaper to make then using natural ingredients from plants.  It is phosphate free, biodegradable and because it is made from the fat of humans then it is sustainable.