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Fighting Climate Change, One Laundry Load At A Time


STANLEY REED | NYT Syndicate

A DANISH biotechnology company is trying to fight climate change one laundry load at a time. Its secret weapon: mushrooms like those in a dormant forest outside Copenhagen.
In the quest for a more environmentally friendly detergent, two scientists at the company, Novozymes, regularly trudge through the mud, hunting for oyster mushrooms that protrude from a fallen beech or bracken fungi that feast on tough plant fibres. They are studying the enzymes in mushrooms that speed up chemical reactions or natural processes such as decay.
"There is a lot going on here, if you know what to look for," said Mikako Sasa, one of the Novozymes scientists. Their work is helping the company develop enzymes for laundry and dishwasher detergents that would require less water, or that would work just as effectively at lower temperatures.
The energy savings could be significant. Washing machines, for instance, account for more than 6 percent of household electricity use in the European Union. Modern detergents contain as many as eight different enzymes.
In 2016, Novozymes generated about $2.2 billion in revenue and provided enzymes for popular detergents. The quantity of enzymes required in a detergent is relatively small compared with chemical alternatives, an appealing quality for customers looking for more natural ingredients.
A tenth of a teaspoon of enzymes in a typical European laundry load cuts by half the amount of soap from petrochemicals or palm oil in a detergent. Enzymes are also well suited to helping cut energy consumption. They are often found in relatively cool environments, such as forests and oceans. As a result of that low natural temperature, they do not require the heat and pressure typically used in washing machines and other laundry processes.
As it researches new enzymes, Novozymes is trying to reach consumers in fast-growing economies, like China. At this point, Chinese consumers mostly wash at low temperatures. But Peder Holk Nielsen, the chief executive of Novozymes, worries that could change as wealth in China grows. If, thanks to enzyme development, that transition can be avoided, that would be"a phenomenal sustainability story," he said.

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