Minnesota’s Commercial Laundry: Scouring a Cleaner Way Forward


Following a self-analysis of the Minnesota Green Chemistry Forum’s (MGCF) strengths and an outward analysis of the current Green Chemistry environment, the MGCF is trying a new approach to its mission of advancing green chemistry practice by selecting a priority contaminant in Minnesota and pursuing its reduction in products.

The Steering Committee elected to focus on remaining use of a group of chemicals – called nonylphenol ethoxylates, or NPEs – used in institutional laundry detergents. The project seeks to better understand where these chemicals are still present, in order to focus our promotion of safer alternatives. The reduction project is underway, and is designed as a pilot to determine if such similar MGCF initiatives can directly benefit Minnesota and its environment.



In recent years, a group of chemicals used in detergents – called nonylphenol ethoxylates, or NPEs – and the chemical backbone they degrade to – called nonylphenol - have been targeted for replacement because:

  • they don’t degrade for a long time (persisting indoors or in the environment),
  • they are toxic to life in rivers and lakes, and
  • they can affect development in people, particularly children.

NPE surfactants are used for a huge variety of purposes, including cleaners, degreasers, dry cleaning aids, petroleum dispersants, oilfield chemicals, adhesives, pesticides, cosmetics, paper and fabric processing, prewash spotters, metalworking fluids, paints and coatings, dust control, phosphate antioxidants for rubber and plastics, lube oil additives, and more.

In 2010, previous work had eliminated NPE in household detergents, and information available to EPA led it to conclude that “a large proportion of use and subsequent environmental release is associated with industrial laundries.”  Large-scale “industrial” laundries ended about 200 tons of annual NPE use in 2013, but tests here in Minnesota after that showed little impact on the amount of NPE coming into waste water treatment plants. 

So the MGCF Steering Committee concluded that new ground could be broken by confirming the presence or absence of NPEs in detergents in other large-scale laundries.  Where they are found to be present, reduction effort will be invested and hopefully, measured.  If few facilities are found to be using NPE detergents, the MGCF can recommend other sectors and uses to engage. 

This will be useful learning not only in Minnesota, but to the entire green chemistry community in the U.S., and beyond.



This Minnesota-focused project seeks to understand better where NPE in commercial detergents may still be in use, and to promote safer alternatives wherever possible.  Since the industrial laundries have eliminated its use, the MGCF is looking at other large-scale operations cleaning rugs, uniforms, linens, towels, or other fabrics – including hospitals, hotels, prisons, and residential care facilities.

  • A work group has been formed and is mapping out the project.  The group includes several MGCF affiliates: Fairview Health Services, Conservation Minnesota, Ecolab, MPCA, St. Olaf College, and the University of Minnesota - with plans to involve other suppliers and purchasers of detergents.
  • Each of the work group members will be querying their networks to help whittle down to an up-to-date list of facilities to interview about their detergent use.
  • The work group is recruiting 2 student interns from Minnesota colleges to conduct phone and e-mails surveys, and to convey information about detergents with safer alternatives to NPE surfactants.
  • The latest draft work plan is here– the project is expected to wrap up and report to MGCF members and stakeholders by the end of 2016.

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