Boat Soap and the Environment

Many voyagers are aware of the movement toward a “green” lifestyle both ashore and afloat. Sailors can take some credit for already being “green” by virtue of the low impact that a sailboat under sail makes on the environment. But, of course, that is only part of the switch to removing contaminates from the marine environment. Even the most ardent sailor, who refuses to carry an engine aboard his or her boat, may still be using toxic anti-fouling paint, for example.
According to Bill and Sandy Jenkins, the owners of a small cleaning products company called Latitude 43, another area in which voyagers can make a positive impact is in using non-petroleum-based detergent cleaners. Jenkins said his company is the only firm producing not detergents but true soaps that don’t harm the environment.
The petroleum-based hydrocarbons in detergent cleaning products do not break down in the water column, but tend to accumulate in bottom sediment and turn up in marine life. Additionally, these products contain chemicals called surfactants (a contraction of the words “surface active agent”) that reduce the surface tension of water. When the surface tension is lessened, the result is that a cleaning product produces plentiful suds. For most of us, when we see lots of bubbles we naturally assume the product is doing a better job. According to Jenkins, however, the amount of suds a cleaning product generates has little to do with its cleaning ability. And surfactants have a definite environmental downside. By lowering the surface tension of water, they interfere with fish’s ability to grab dissolved oxygen from the water. The result is that fish can suffocate. “Surfactants are foaming agents, and they flat-out kill fish.”

More than that, surfactants can also include nonylphenol ethoxylates, or NPEs, as an ingredient. NPEs produce byproducts that are toxic to fish. Many European companies are working toward a ban on NPEs in detergent products. In the U.S., the EPA has a program called the Safer Detergents Stewardship Initiative (SDSI) designed to phase out the use of NPE-producing surfactants in detergents.

So, while detergent-based products can have an adverse environmental impact, a soap-based cleaner, like Jenkins’ Latitude 43 Organic Boat Soap is said to have little impact due to that fact that it is a soap rather than a detergent. The difference is in the chemistry of the cleaner and in the way it deals with dirt.
Detergents have a chemical structure that repels dirt, forcing it away from the detergent molecules. And petroleum-based detergents tend to be long-lived in the marine environment. Soap, on the other hand, is made up of long-chain, linear molecules with an electrical charge that attracts dirt particles and holds onto them. “When you make soap you get a long, simple molecule,” Jenkins said. “One end is negative, one end is positive. One end connects to a water molecule and the other end attaches to dirt.” But this effect is short-lived and natural-based soaps will break down quickly.
In colonial times, people made their own soap in the spring by combining fatty acids, usually from animal renderings, with lye and water in a big pot over a fire. Then it was a simple matter of stirring this bubbling mixture, always in the same direction, according to Jenkins, so that the long molecules formed until saponification (the chemical process that results in soap) occurs. According to Jenkins, who is in the process of starting up and running Latitude 43 and has learned a thing or two about soap, this process took several days. Making your own soap was not without some danger, as the lye (either sodium or potassium hydroxide) used was highly reactive and could badly burn a soap-maker’s skin.
Just as it took time for the colonial soap maker, it also takes a relatively long time for Latitude 43 to make its boat soap. “It takes us seven to 10 days to make a batch of soap,” Jenkins said. Instead of animal renderings, Latutude 43 uses a variety of organic vegetable oils, such as coconut, olive and jojoba. While non-organic detergent manufacturers are under no requirement to divulge their ingredients, because Latitude 43 uses organic materials, it is required by the FDA to reveal its ingredients on the label. And to maintain its organic rating, Latitude 43 has to keep its facilities free from non-organic materials.
Of course, all this attention to organic materials would be for nought if the Latitude 43 boat soap didn’t get rid of dirt and grime. “The key was to make the product work,” Jenkins said. “Our goal was to come up a cleaner that would clean as well as chemical-based cleaners.” Jenkins said that his company has begun its marketing effort for its boat soap by targeting commercial boatyards. It has also placed its product with marine suppliers, such as Lewis Marine Supply in Florida, North Carolina, New York and Maine.
And interest in more environmentally friendly cleaning products is part of a trend toward better environmental practices at boatyards and by boatowners nationwide. A recent Providence Journal newspaper article, for example, cites the EPA’s efforts to ensure boatyards in Rhode Island follow environmental requirements. According to the article, the EPA is seeking tens of thousands of dollars in fines from several boatyards that have not abided by state and federal regulations. And there are locations in the U.S. where boats cannot be washed without first being in a designated washing area where the wastewater can be trapped. As Jenkins points out, boatyards and marinas are acting now to get in compliance. “They know what’s coming and they are trying to clean up their operations.”
By Ocean Navigator