Life Cycle of Shampoo

Below is a condensed version of a research paper I completed out of an interest in the product life cycle of my shampoo.  I felt that understanding where something I use daily comes from and goes will help me better appreciate it.  This may be the first of many life cycle analyses.

Upon walking into Wal Mart, I take little notice of the thousands of products I pass by on my way to get my usual item, a bottle of Suave “Juicy Green Apple” shampoo.  I pick up a bottle off the shelf, just one of fifty of its kind sitting there, waiting to be bought.  Going to the registers I put down a dollar, then make my way home and put the bottle in my shower, happy that I got something that can last me three months for such a cheap price.  Never did I ever think though where that bottle had come from, and where, when it was empty and the shampoo gone, did it go.  And not only did my bottle have a journey to be told to and from my house, so did the shampoo that was contained within the bottle.  There was a life to this bottle of shampoo, and it was now my goal to figure out where it came from, for, as like with humans: everything comes from the earth, and, at one point in time, must return to the earth.

The concept of a product’s “life cycle” is simple; the product is made from something somewhere in the world, it is sent to a store, it is bought from the store, and then it is disposed of after being used, at to which point the story ends as we know it as consumers.  But little is known about the before and after of that story.  Yes that product is sitting on a store shelf, and therefore had to come from somewhere, but where did it come from?  In the same sense, yes we dispose of a product, but where does it go once it leaves our homes?  These are huge questions which can only be answered after a good deal of time searching for the right answers.  But in order to get the right answers, the right questions must be asked.

The best place to start my research I figured was with looking at the product itself, visually taking in all that I could.  There was the plastic bottle.  There was the label.  On that label included a list of ingredients that comprised of what was in the shampoo.  At the top of the list of ingredients was water.  I soon realized that this ingredient was probably going to be the only ingredient I recognized and would be able to easily determine as to where it went after it was used and washed down the drain.  Looking at the next three ingredients on the list, (ammonium lauryl sulfate, ammonium laureth sulfate, and ammonium chloride), I determined that this was the next best place to start research at, seeing as how they all had ammonium within their name.  Before breaking into these three ingredients, I was curious to know about ammonium on its own.  Ammonium is a positively charged cation that is slightly acidic, that when used in mixtures acts as a reducing agent.  Ammonium salts, such as the ones listed above, are highly soluble in water, resulting in being harmless when broken down into their original molecules.  So far I saw no problem with the disposal of the shampoo down the drain, for the atom was harmless after the compound has been dissolved in water.  This did not yet answer my question though; my question of what these three ingredients were and what they did for the product.

Ammonium lauryl sulfate (and ammonium laureth sulfate which is pretty much identical in makeup and usage) when used in shampoo has one purpose and one purpose alone.  Doing research about it there was a lot of chemistry involved that I think is pretty irrelevant to the life cycle of the product of my shampoo, but in short, the chemical reaction that this ingredient has with water greatly reduces water’s surface tension ability to make it possible for water to break down so much that it can actually penetrate into and through hair, just using water instead of invading chemicals from the alternate sodium sulfate ingredient used in other shampoos.  I definitely think this can be considered a deep, efficient way of getting clean.  Now although discussed above ammonium in its molecular form is harmless, higher concentrations of this ingredient can cause irritation to sensitive parts of the body.  This explains why it stings our eyes when shampoo happens to get into them.

Ammonium chloride is actually a byproduct of volcanic eruptions or found as remnants after burning coal.  Instead of waiting for a volcano to erupt or have a worker standing on a burning pile of coal, creating this ingredient for shampoo is done in a much safer and less costly and time consuming way.  By mixing ammonium with hydrochloric acid the reaction that occurs produces an outcome that creates a white powder identical to the natural makeup of ammonium chloride.  This ingredient is added to the shampoo mixture in order to act as a buffer, keeping the pH balance where it needs to be.

Next on the list of ingredients is Cocamide MEA.  This ingredient has very little to do with the importance of the shampoo, and if not used, would not make the shampoo work any better or worse in its absence.  This ingredient is purely used to get the yellowish coloring within the “Juicy Green Apple shampoo”.  It is not used in all of the “Suave Naturals” shampoo products, just those that require a hint of yellow coloring.

Fragrance is the ingredient with the most obvious use to it.  I tried searching to find how this ingredient was created, and emailed the company, but they would not reveal exactly what went into their fragrance.  The smell of my shampoo is of a freshly cut granny apple though, so I can only imagine there is some of that in there or an artificial mixture made to smell extremely similar to it.

PEG-5 Cocamide, also known as polyethylene glycol cocamide, is a mixture that has two uses.  The cocamide, as described earlier, is mixed with the PEG-5 in order to give it the needed color.  Polyethylene glycol is used as a stabilizer in shampoo.  This is what keeps the water soluble ammonium ingredients intact with the low amounts of water that are in the shampoo with it.  If this ingredient was not included into shampoo then upon buying a bottle of this product, it would be nothing more than some bad tasting artificially flavored apple juice most likely, for all the salts and water destabilizing ingredients would themselves become unstable and break apart.

Hydroxypropyl methylcellulose comes into play when it comes to pouring the shampoo.  I have always noticed that when pouring shampoo out into my hand it flows a lot slower than if I were to pour a bottle of water into my hand.  This ingredient does help bond all the ingredients together, and causes for the slower pouring of the shampoo mixture.  Why this certain ingredient is used above others though is that, unlike other ingredients of this kind, this does not turn into a gel at high temperatures.  Without this particular ingredient, shampoo would pour out like water and be wasted.  With a different form of this ingredient, it would be like trying to squeeze out toothpaste.

Sorting through a lot of big words and confusing chemical formulas, Polyquaternium-10 is simply added to shampoo mixtures to cancel out the negative charges of shampoo, causing the polyquatemium to lose it’s positive charge which in turn helps the hair to lay flat upon coming out of the shower instead of immediately frizzing up.

Tetrasodium EDTA, although lower on the list of ingredients, has a very important job.  It is absolutely necessary in the shampooing process, but does not in any way help to get rid of the unwanted stuff from your hair.  This ingredient, after the ammonium ingredients have done their job of getting water into the hair, is responsible for ridding the remnants of whatever water is left inside the hair.  Without this ingredient, our fresh smelling hair, upon being left to dry, would soon smell foul of the water that was never extracted from the hair.

DMDM Hydantoin helps to protect the shampoo mixture, and ensures that its shelf life remains as long as possible.  This ingredient added into the mixture acts as a preservative in the shampoo, protecting the shampoo from microorganisms that would otherwise eventually start to destroy the mixture.  Citric acid added to the mixture has similar use, primarily combined to help preserve the life of the shampoo.

The remaining of the ingredients had little information on them other than that they were used for color, scent, or to help strengthen the hair.  This particular shampoo bottle comes out of Suave’s “Naturals” collection, so this remainder of ingredients helps to ensure that the name of the product and the appearance and scent match up.

Now that I had a clear understanding of what ingredients comprised my shampoo and what each was used for and where they came from, I was able to begin with my true discovery of the life cycle of my product.

Above is a crude diagram I made of what the general idea of a product’s life cycle is.  Before I could start the process of breaking down the cycle into individual steps, I had to first realize that the shampoo mixture (of the ingredients I had already read about and figured out how they were produced), and the bottle which contained the mixture, each had their own lives through every stage except for consumers, where they shared the same life of sitting in my shower until both had fulfilled the purpose and moved on to disposal.  I decided that the best way to achieve properly explaining the life cycle of my shampoo was to break down the cycle into two different cycles; one cycle being that of the shampoo in the bottle, and the other cycle, of the bottle itself.

First I wanted to look at the extraction process of all the ingredients I had researched. It seemed that the majority of them were made up of simple molecular compounds that could be created in a lab.  Even ammonium chloride (pictured right), which naturally comes from volcanos, could be made in a lab.  I felt relieved to know that the extraction phase of at least this half of the product took little out of the environment other than collected molecules and naturally occurring, abundant compounds.  Most of what was needed to be used in the production stage was already sitting in the factory just waiting its turn to play its part in the shampoo mix.

The production process of the shampoo itself is extremely easy, even individuals at home, with the right few ingredients required, can make shampoo.  Although shampoo could be made bottle per bottle, the more efficient way is to make larger batches of shampoo which can fill numerous bottles every batch.  Producing shampoo is a simple process.  Most of the websites I visited all had a different amount of steps to the process, but in the end all essentially said the same thing.  Step 1 was to start off with water, since every bottle of shampoo, depending on the brand, has anywhere from 60-80% water.  My particular bottle of shampoo is a bit on the lower end with about 65% water added to the mix.  The following steps are to add in the ingredients.  Fragrance is an optional additive into the mix, but for my “Juicy Green Apple” shampoo, it is necessary to get the desired smell.  Once all the ingredients are added, they are mixed all together, then the final solution is poured into bottles, all ready to be consumed, with the preservatives playing their part in ensuring that the shampoo will last.  When it came to looking at the workers, I visited the Unilever website, which clearly stated that since they had hired the best talent, the individuals deserved the same treatment.  In this particular area of production with hydrochloric acid the workers do not come in direct contact with the hazardous substance, but rather operate the machines that handle it.  Worker health is top priority.  In the same sense, Unilever focuses greatly on sustainability, and ensures that their factories do little harm to the environment through good cleaning and maintenance habits.

The next step in the life cycle is the one I know about very well.  As a consumer I wake up every morning, turn on the shower, get in, wet my hair, and then grab up the bottle squirting out a bit of the shampoo into my hand.  Closing the bottle I put it back in its spot then raise my hands and begin the shampooing process, working my hands through my hair until it’s all nice and foamy.  I then wash the shampoo out of my hair and let it go down the drain, and then continue on with the rest of my showering routine.  As that shampoo heads down the drain, it continues on to the next part of its life cycle.

For the shampoo solution part of the product, the disposal and degradation parts of the life cycle are mixed with each other, for as soon as the shampoo hits the drain, it has been disposed of, yet even on its way down the pipes, the ingredients are already breaking down and dissolving into seemingly harmless atoms and compounds.  As part of the “Naturals” collection, the mixture of ingredients used in my shampoo are all specifically chosen to be harmless to the environment after use.  There is even a label on the bottle saying “Biodegradable Formula” and under it, “Please Recycle”.  Most of the ingredients will break down and flow harmlessly with the water and dissipate.  Any remaining compounds that find their way to the septic tank don’t have the capability of interacting with anything in there that would cause it to react in any way.  Overall, the shampoo part of the product does little effect to the environment, and the mixture ensures its life cycle is clean and efferent.  I do fear though, the same cannot be said for the bottle that it resides in.

Looking at the back of my bottle I see that it is type two plastic, so that is where I must start in the life cycle, seeing how type two plastic is made.  Before I started to research how this type of plastic was made, first things first, I had to know just what the heck HDPE stood for.  This did not take long, and I soon found the full name of this type two plastic to be high-density polyethylene.  The name described the makeup as such, high density of plastic, which came with the properties of stiffness, strength, toughness, resistance to moisture, and permeability to gas.  This type of plastic is produced from petroleum, with about 1.75 kilograms of petroleum producing about 1 kilogram of type two plastic.  Even though petroleum is extracted from all around the world through many different forms, Suave Company does ensure that the type two plastic they use for their bottles is American petroleum.  The process of turning petroleum into plastic is quite simple once the crude oil has made it to the oil refinery where it will be broken down into all the different carbon chains possible of coming out of it.  From all the outputs of crude oil distillation, only two of the byproducts actually go into the making of plastics.  Ethane and propane are the two compounds that are used in plastic, and are heated up to become ethylene and propylene.  These heated up forms of the oil are then mixed with other chemicals to create polymers.  These polymers, simply put, are longer chains of mixed ethylene and propylene molecules.  When these polymers are compressed together they form small plastic pellets, (or “nurdles” as we learned in class) which are then sold in bulk to manufacturers that need them.

These tiny, polymer compressed, plastic pellets are sent via train and then truck to the factories in need of them.  For my specific bottle of shampoo, the pellets were transferred to a Unilever factory in Connecticut, where along the way, most likely, many pellets fell out of the train, being left to get washed away by the storms, causing harm to the environment in their own way.  But this unfortunate happening was not a part of the life cycle of my bottle, and therefore had to go unnoticed in the production process.

Upon arrival to the Connecticut Unilever factory, these small pellets were taken off the train and transported in large bins to holding chambers with the rest of the pellets waiting to be transformed into plastic bottles.  In order for the plastic pellets to be made into plastic bottles, thousands of pellets are heated up; melting into what is called thermoplastic.  This thermoplastic is then poured into bottle molds; the top shaped into how it needs to be, and cooled rapidly in order to harden the liquid form of plastic into a nice sturdy solid.  The same process of turning pellets to plastic caps is done in a different part of the factory.

The completed bottles, cooled into hardened strong type two plastic, make their way down a series of conveyor belts on their way to their destinations.  My particular bottle of shampoo found itself on a path that would eventually have it filled with a small portion of a batch of shampoo of the juicy green apple formula; the mixture all set to be bottled up.  These full bottles, still topless, would then continue on to have tops placed onto them, the whole time under close inspection from individuals monitoring for quality control.  One final machine, printing out labels specific to the fragrance of shampoo within the bottle, would stick the labels to the bottle, sending them off to one final quality control inspection place before being boxed and shipped by truck to the Wal Mart in Clinton where I would be shopping for them.

This brings me back to the beginning of my story, where me as the consumer played my part in going to the store and purchasing a bottle, returning with it home, and unknowingly gaining satisfaction out of the fact that the bottle was able to maintain the integrity of the shampoo formula within it.  After researching about this particular shampoo, and learning about the piping system in my house, I know that as soon as the shampoo hits the drain it’s mostly water, with some remaining compounds left over.  Since the compounds are so minute though they are not filtered out to go to the septic tank, but rather flow out through a series of pipes that eventually drains out into my backyard, which is a big hill.  From here it follows a naturally created water path down to a brook.  The brook leads to Round Valley Reservoir.  Research assured me that that water would be completely harmless, and the shampoo compounds would be broken down.  Now I’m sure pouring a large amount of toxic substances down my drain would have a different result that might in fact harm the water, but my shampoo did not fall under this category.  Of course as months go by, I eventually find myself with an empty bottle, deeming it time for the bottle to continue on its journey, free of the shampoo within.  Now I do take the advice of the back of the bottle and put my used up bottle into the recycling bin with all the other plastics and aluminum products used up in our household, so the disposal process my bottle’s life cycle will follow will be that of a recycling plant instead of a journey to a landfill where it would wait out centuries.

When my recycling bin gets full, I take the 5 minute drive to two miles away from my house to a recycling plant, emptying the bin into a pile of other plastics, aluminum, cardboard, newspaper, and other recycled items to be dealt with.  When the pile gets large enough, a bulldozer will push them all to one side, repeating the process again and again until a truck arrives that is then filled with all the recyclable items, unsorted.  This truck then makes its way to a larger recycling plant that focuses on sorting.  My plastic bottle gets separated from all the other products and is thrown onto a conveyor belt for plastic.  Workers then find my type two plastic bottle and send it on its way to a machine that specifically deals with type two plastic.  My plastic bottle is then melted down in the machine, coming out as a lower grade plastic, ready to start a brand new life cycle, going back into the production process all over again, unsure of where its life will lead it next…

When it comes to figuring out a more sustainable product, I was not able to find one.  This shampoo is made with the special need in mind of being safe for the environment.  Even though there may be some strong brands of environmentally friendly shampoo, they all have less chemicals and additives to them, and with my type of hair, I need at the least what’s in this bottle.  Suave Naturals does offer an unscented, uncolored, shampoo in their collection though, so that would be the best choice for me if anything.

Overall I found this to be an extremely fun and interesting project, even though at first I didn’t want to spend my time researching the life cycle of a product.  It was truly amazing to learn exactly how the shampoo was made, where it came from, what went into making the bottles, and what happened to both my shampoo down the drain and bottle in the bin when I was done with them.  Looking around my house now, it is hard to imagine that every single one of the thousands of products in my house all has a similar cycle to my bottle of shampoo.  Yet in the end, everything comes from the earth, and at some point, must return to the earth.


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