Fighting Climate Change, One Laundry Load at a Time

Fighting Climate Change, One Laundry Load at a Time

Next, they found a way to mass produce the enzyme. Novozymes implanted the newly developed product’s DNA into a batch of microbial hosts used to cultivate large volumes of enzymes quickly and at low cost. The enzymes were then “brewed” in large, closely monitored tanks before being sold.

The result: a crucial ingredient in detergents like Tide Cold Water.

“This is biotechnology on a very large scale,” said Jes Bo Tobiassen, the manager of a Novozymes manufacturing facility in Kalundborg, a small coastal city in Denmark.

As it researches new enzymes, Novozymes is trying to reach consumers in fast-growing economies, like China.

In much of the developed world, laundry habits are relatively entrenched. Europeans tend to use front-loading washers, which are far more efficient in energy and water use than the top-loaders favored in the United States.


Peder Holk Nielsen, the chief executive of Novozymes, said the development of enzymes for washing clothes could be “a phenomenal sustainability story.”

Carsten Snejbjerg for The New York Times

But in China, members of the growing middle class like Shen Hang are upgrading washing machines and turning to more expensive, higher-quality detergents. While Chinese consumers are among the world’s most frequent and fastidious washers of clothes, according to Novozymes researchers, they aren’t as set in their ways.

Mr. Shen recently bought an efficient front-loading washer-dryer. But he has struggled to find a detergent that can get his sweat-stained shirt collars clean.

“I’m kind of sick of that,” he said of manufacturers’ exaggerated claims.

He uses two types of bleach, one for white clothes and one for colored. If they do not work, he manually rubs the stains with his hands. He repeats that cycle three times a week.

Sensing an opportunity, Novozymes’s commercial teams have pushed the company’s scientists to create enzymes that would perform better in the bleach-filled washes favored in China.

The company has made progress. A newly developed enzyme named Progress Uno is being added to liquid detergents manufactured by Liby, a Chinese company.

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. Consumers did the same in the West in the decades after World War II, Mr. Nielsen said.

But if, thanks to enzyme development, that transition can be avoided, that would be “a phenomenal sustainability story,” he said. “It is going to save so much water, and so much energy.”

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