What's in fabric softener

Slaughterhouse waste and fabric softener: chemist explains the connection

A disgust report is currently circulating in many media: According to this, there is slaughterhouse waste in our fabric softeners. What is there and what fats are doing in fabric softeners, explains Prof. Dr. Thomas Schupp from our chemical engineering department.

Prof. Dr. Thomas Schupp researches and teaches in the chemical engineering department, among other things, on sustainable chemistry and ecotoxicology. (Photo: FH M√ľnster / Wilfried Gerharz)

Prof. Schupp, slaughterhouse waste in fabric softeners, that sounds anything but clean, fragrant and soft, like our laundry with fabric softeners should be. How does that fit together?

I can only shake my head. Slaughterhouse waste in fabric softener sounds like it was just mixed in with it. But this is not the case: it is animal fats that undergo a chemical reaction, i.e. that are chemically processed, cleaned and converted before they are used in the manufacture of fabric softeners. These animal fats are, for example, body fat or sebum that is left over when animals are slaughtered. These leftovers can of course be thrown away as waste or burned. But you can also use them to save oil. So we use the whole animal. You could also see it this way: the animal's sacrifice is too precious to simply throw away usable parts of its body.

Why do we even need oil in fabric softeners?

Fabric softeners are based on organic compounds, which in turn are usually obtained from petroleum. Vegetable and animal fats can be used to reduce the consumption of petroleum. In addition, the fat-based fabric softeners have been modified in such a way that they degrade more easily in the environment than the previously used entirely petroleum-based products. Improved degradability of fabric softeners was a requirement of the Federal Environment Agency.

Speaking of breaking down: When it comes to sustainability, fabric softeners are repeatedly criticized. Do you have a recommendation?

That depends on what demands you have on your laundry. Someone who has to represent himself and who wears shirts every day probably won't want to go without fabric softener. In general, I refer to the Federal Environment Agency - and they recommend using fabric softener only where it is really necessary. Because the chemistry in the wash water goes on into our sewage treatment plants and from there into our environment. Superficially, fabric softeners only improve the comfort of the textiles and thus they would represent an avoidable burden on the environment. But if you have a lot of ironing and are then perhaps dependent on the tumble dryer, the energy expenditure and the climate potential of the entire process of washing, ironing and drying is reduced.

By the way: If you don't want to have processed animal fats in your fabric softener as a matter of principle, you can use partially petrochemical fabric softener with coconut oil. On the whole, they are a tad more sustainable in terms of climate potential than fabric softeners with beef suet - provided that the coconut palm plantation did not have to give way to natural jungle.