Mixing Greener Cleaners
If you ever had thoughts of being a scientist as a kid, this is where you wanted to be — experimenting in the lab at the Thetford Corp. in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Here, it’s as if you’ve entered a boat bakery, and anything goes. You’re surrounded with swatches of vinyl seat covers, pieces of windshields and chunks of unpainted aluminum. Over on bookshelves are samples of the brainiac stuff: dyes and fragrances; surfactants and hydrotropes; chelating agents and ... more stuff.
“Sometimes it seems like black magic,” says Mary Burrows, the senior of Thetford’s three full-time chemists. “We’re trying to create something that cleans but doesn’t harm the environment. All from scratch.”
Thetford committed its cleaning products three years ago to the Design for the Environment (DFE) standards. It could have chosen an unsubstantiated green label from the dozens available on the Internet, which is what some companies have done without changing their formulas much. It would have been easier. The DFE folks couldn’t give much direction to Burrows, except to start and end every conversation with “no.”
Because boat cleaners are released directly outdoors, the DFE requirements are far stricter than the standards for household products. These boat cleaners can’t harm aquatic life. Can’t accumulate in the environment. No phosphates. No deodorizers. It was like being asked to make chicken noodle soup, without using chicken or noodles, and, oh, it has to be natural.
“We had to figure it out,” Burrows says. “There were a lot of hours and a lot of rejections.”
Some of the lukewarm reactions came from Thetford’s panel of 500 field testers. But after a year, the ladies in the lab coats landed on a few potions. They’re now serving up six DFE-approved products, some in their second and third generations.
“There’s nothing like hands-on experimenting,” Burrows says. And so in her lab there are boat parts soaking in new concoctions. There’s mixing and messing. Makes you again want to be a scientist. — R.S.