How the Cleaning Granulate Was Developed


“It’s time to forge new paths”

Wetrok is the first manufacturer in the world to develop a cleaning product made of granulate. In this interview, Head of Chemicals Irene von Büren and Head of Chemical Development Remo Wild provide exclusive insights into the development process. A conversation about being inspired by tunnel construction, poor maths skills and what a patent has to do with a glass of whisky.

Ms. von Büren, liquid detergents have been commonplace for years – why should we now switch to granulate all of a sudden?

Irene von Büren: Because modern cleaning is not an isolated activity, but part of a holistic process. In the past, cleaning products only had to do one thing: clean effectively. Today, the requirements are far more complex: Customers are interested in how easy the product is to use, how safe it is for personnel, how it’s transported and what impact it has on the environment. They want to take responsibility for their employees and the environment – and we want to support them in doing that! Our granulate provides a solution that fulfils all the aforementioned requirements better than any liquid cleaning product. It’s time to forge new paths!

Cleaning with granulate – not everyone can picture what that means. How does it work?

Irene von Büren: It’s very simple, I promise! The granulate is packaged in individual sachets weighing five to 25 grams, depending on the product type. Cleaning staff open the sachet, mix the granulate with water, and the product is ready to use. One sachet contains exactly the right amount for one use. The WC cleaner, for example, uses one sachet per toilet bowl.

Mr. Wild, you have been heavily involved in the development of the granulate product line from day one. How did Wetrok come up with the idea to develop a cleaning granulate?

Remo Wild: The product development process always starts with a customer problem. In this case, we wanted to address probably the biggest problem in the industry: overdosage. Our goal was to develop a product that completely eliminates the need for dosing by cleaning staff. This means no more manual dosing tasks and no dosage system. It’s a lot like convenience products in grocery stores: Instead of placing meat, vegetables and pasta in their shopping basket and cooking it at home in the appropriate quantities, customers can simply buy a ready meal. Ready meals can simply be heated up, don’t require any cooking skills and free up time for other things. Our pre-dosed granulate sachets offer the same advantage.

Irene von Büren: Overdosage is not only caused by the popular misconception that “more product equals better cleaning results”, but also by poor maths skills. In our cleaning training sessions, we often find that calculating the dosage can be really taxing for cleaning staff. For example: If a task requires a cleaning solution with 5% cleaning product, cleaning staff may be unsure whether the cleaning product should make up 5% of the litre, or whether the 5% should be added to the litre. With Granuline, these preparatory tasks and potential pitfalls are completely eliminated.

Why did Wetrok opt for granulate and not for a powder or tablet?

Remo Wild: At first glance, a powder or tablet with a soluble film seems like the obvious solution – and indeed, such products are already commonplace for use in dishwashers and washing machines. However, in these cases, the product is dissolved in hot water for a specific time using an automated washing program. We don’t have these supporting factors in facility cleaning. The cleaning solution must be ready for use immediately without contact time, stirring or hot water. In this respect, our tests using powder and pressed powder tablets proved to be either too slow to dissolve or didn’t dissolve fully.

Irene von Büren: This taught us an important lesson: The product has to fully dissolve to achieve optimal cleaning results.

What was the next step in the development process, and how did you settle on granulate as the solution?

Remo Wild: My team and I spent a long time researching possible solutions and, while doing so, came across an analogy from another industry. In tunnel construction, polymers are used in tunnel walls. These coat the bricks and remove any unwanted particles. The particles are then held in a suspended state. So I thought to myself, if it works for removing unwanted particles in tunnel construction, why not with dirt in the cleaning industry? By the way, the process is called electrosteric stabilisation and is a combination of steric and electrostatic stabilisation.

Electrosteric stabilisation is all about the ionic “character” of the polymer chain. One end is attached to the particle, while the other protrudes into the water. As a result, only chain ends with the same ionic charge (shown as positive in the diagram) protrude into the water – and these repel each other. Thanks to this repellent effect, the dirt remains suspended for a period without sinking to the floor. This aids the cleaning process. The interaction between the ionic charge and the chain length is produced by raw materials known as anti-redeposition agents.

Is this process the reason why the granulate-based cleaning products are patented?

Remo Wild: Yes and no. The process already existed – but we are the first manufacturer to use electrosteric stabilisation in facility cleaning. In addition, we have added a special raw material to our granulate that further enhances the cleaning performance by removing not only emulsifiable particles, but also extremely fine dirt particles (e.g. dust) in hard-to-reach places. For example: If you spill a glass of whisky, the water doesn’t spread across the whole table, but forms a compact shape in a single area (the water pools together). When cleaning, however, it’s important that this doesn’t happen – after all, we want to reach even the furthest corners with the cleaning solution. So our special raw material significantly reduces the surface tension and allows the cleaning product to reach even the smallest nooks and crannies. It does this not only better than conventional liquid cleaning products, but extremely quickly too – in less than a second. To date, this time to value, measured using tensiometric analysis, is unique – and it is precisely this technological leap that has been awarded a patent.

What do you need to know and what do you need to consider when developing such a product in the lab?

Remo Wild: Developing an innovation of this kind requires one thing above all else: time. This process started with nothing but an idea in 2012. Before you can order the initial raw materials, you first need to think everything through from start to finish. Once you have the raw materials, it’s time to work out which concentration of which raw materials produces the best results. It’s similar to blending spices in the kitchen or creating a perfume. At one point, we produced more than 50 different samples in one day, all of which then had to be meticulously tested. While in one sample the dissolution time, cleaning performance or area distribution was not optimal, in another it was the dye or the presence of undesired reactions that had an unfavourable effect on the stability of the granules. To be honest, we almost wrote off the whole project three times because we weren’t satisfied with the results. We also had to wait a long time for certain raw materials, which delayed the development process even further. However, as with so many things in life, persistence paid off in the end (laughs). Failure was not an option!

Irene von Büren: From the outset, we worked very closely together with our toll manufacturer, who is now mass-producing the cleaning granulate. The company even had to have special equipment built for drying and filling the granulate – there was no such equipment on the market. At the end of 2016, we finally found the perfect formula for the granulate. However, before the first three granulates were released on the market in 2017, they were put through their paces by our trial customers.

How did the trial customers react to the granulate?

Irene von Büren: Some were a little sceptical at first – after all, the granulate was a completely different way of cleaning than they were used to. However, after several weeks, they were unanimous in their enthusiasm. Our customers were relieved to finally have an effective solution to overdosage available to them. I often hear that the granulate is self-explanatory and even untrained cleaning staff or assistants can immediately get to grips with it. Particularly for cleaning staff with limited knowledge of the local language, the simple “one sachet, one use” principle is an enormous help. One customer explained to me that his employees had previously overdosed the cleaning product by about 25 percent. He was more than happy to save those unnecessary costs by using the granulate.

For employees, changing cleaning processes is always associated with additional effort and scepticism – what do they have to gain from switching to granulate-based cleaning?

Irene von Büren: Yes, for employees, it does mean an initial adjustment – one that is nevertheless good for their health. They no longer have to heave 10-litre canisters onto storage shelves or lug them around the building. Instead, they carry lightweight sachets around with them. The perforated, easy-to-open sachets also eliminate the risk of skin contact with the granulate – even if they forget their gloves once in a while.  Unlike many liquid cleaning products, the granulate does not contain solvents – meaning employees are protected from inhaling harmful fumes.

Remo Wild: Another critical factor: The fact that the product doesn’t contain water means the need for preservatives is completely eliminated. This is a groundbreaking development for the environment and water conservation – I hate to think how many tons of liquid cleaning product with intact biocidal ingredients are poured away after use.

For which customers or properties is the granulate most suitable?

Irene von Büren:  For all who recognise that modern cleaning is about far more than just cleaning products. Facility cleaners, in particular, will appreciate the much smaller transport volume, the improved control over consumption and the precise allocation of products at each property. In Switzerland, several reputable facility cleaning companies have already switched their maintenance cleaning to granulate. The granulate is also suitable for small properties, as the granulate sachets can easily be transported on a cleaning cart instead of moving heavy canisters around the building. Cleaning staff can even carry the granulate for their cleaning assignments in the pocket of their work uniform, rather than on the cleaning cart.

Remo Wild: Thanks to the simple application, it’s also suitable for companies with a high staff turnover – with no dosing required, there is no knowledge to pass on.

You mentioned savings in terms of transport volume – do you have specific figures for this?

Irene von Büren: The main problem with transport is that far too much water is transported completely unnecessarily – namely, the water used in cleaning products. Our granulate eliminates that, so only the core ingredient for the cleaning is transported: the granulate. Think about it this way: One truckload of cleaning granulate can replace six truckloads of liquid cleaning chemicals. There is also no need to return the empty containers. What an enormous impact on both cost and CO2 emissions! According to our calculations, this reduces transport costs by around 75 percent – and in some properties by even more, as reported by a Swiss facility cleaning company.

You stress that the granulate is environment friendly. Why isn’t the sachet self-dissolving – wouldn’t that be better for the environment?

Irene von Büren: Taken in isolation from all other factors, yes. We did test various forms of self-dissolving packaging. The problem is that the packaging takes time to dissolve. Time that cleaning staff don’t have in their daily routines. Another factor is heat. Dishwasher tablets dissolve quickly and easily because they are used in hot water. Cleaning, however, uses cold water. In addition, we have discovered that some materials leave behind little pieces that swell up in the water. These not only block the filter of the scrubber-dryer, but impair the quality of the cleaning results. Ultimately, it’s cleaning performance that counts. If a product doesn’t clean effectively, it doesn’t matter how ecological it is – customers won’t buy it.

Remo Wild: Self-dissolving packaging would also detract from the safety of the product during application and storage. One of the main advantages of granulate is that there is no need for safety installations in storage and the sachets can be carried in one’s pocket – especially in small properties. Self-dissolving sachets could dissolve in warm, humid conditions in storage or in the pockets of cleaning staff – which could lead to harmful contact or liquefaction of the chemicals. We want to avoid such hazards at all costs. That brings us to the topic of microplastics. Water-soluble sachets consist primarily of polyvinyl alcohol. On contact with water, this polymer breaks down into minute microplastic particles. A big issue in this day and age – microplastics are increasingly frowned upon, as they degrade very poorly and unnecessarily harm the environment.

In early April 2020, you added two new cleaning products to the granulate product range – what were these products and why were they added?

Irene von Büren: Our customers who were already using the granulate wanted a complete product range that they could use throughout the property. We were missing a WC cleaner and a basic sanitary cleaner. We have now filled these gaps with the products Granusan forte and Granubowl.

Now for the final question: Can you sum up the benefits of granulate-based cleaning in one sentence?

Remo Wild: Do you know those multifunctional pocket knives, which combine a file, scissors, corkscrew and many other handy tools all in one? Granulate cleaning is like that – it doesn’t just solve one central cleaning problem, but many little challenges at the same time. The result is a comprehensive and all-round beneficial, all-in-one package, which many customers have already discovered the benefits of.