When you want something done right, you call in the experts. When it comes to cleaning up the dirtiest, greasiest messes, those are microbes. For the last 3.5 billion years, single-cell organisms have been metabolizing everything from the sulfuric compounds in volcanic vents to the worst toxins humans have thrown at them.
Now they’re making their way into cleaning products. Bacteria, it turns out, love to eat everything we hate in our buildings: fat, oils, grease, sludge, and other messes that cling to the floors, pipes, grouting, and other surfaces. The standard approach has been to use caustic chemicals such as soda lye (e.g. Draino) and toxic solvents to clean up these messes. At best, this is a temporary reprieve. Exposure to such chemicals may also lead to "toxicity [of] the nervous system, reproductive damage, liver and kidney damage, respiratory impairment, cancer, and dermatitis," according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Technically known as bioremediation, the concept of cleaning up messes with microbes (and biological enzymes) has been around since the 1940s. Typically it has been used on massively contaminated areas like abandoned mines or Superfund sites.
But bioremediation now comes in a bottle. Harmless, naturally occurring microbes in the environment such as bacillus and pseudomonas—which munch on fats, oils, sludge, and other compounds—are collected, cultured, and packaged for specific clean-up jobs, says John Beattie, director of business development at Blue Eagle Products which manufactures the cleaning solutions. His job has gotten easier in the last 15 years as the technology to isolate, grow, and store the right microbes for the job has improved dramatically.
Living cleaning solutions are now cost-competitive and superior to their toxic chemical counterparts, says Beattie. Their only byproduct is carbon dioxide and water, while the cleaning solution keeps working as long as food, moisture, and oxygen are available for the bugs.
Beattie says Blue Eagle’s products have fixed chronic problems with the kitchen drain lines in the 100-year-old Coronado Hotel in San Diego, and eliminated smells from multi-thousand-gallon grease interceptor tanks at the University of San Diego. Biomremediation’s greatest success of late, however, is attributable to nature: The oil spilled during BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster was eaten by hydrocarbon loving bacteria in the wild.
Still, the concept hasn’t made much of a dent in the chemical cleaning solution market. Why? The poor early performance of early microbial (and enzymatic) cleaning products and "the mind set of people in the marketplace," says Beattie.
"I have been manufacturing and marketing bioactive products for several years now and have presented the products to many people whose position was, 'If it ain’t going to kill you if you misuse it, it ain’t going to work here,'" he says. "Bioactive products fall into the green category which is a good thing for the environment, but has negative connotations to an old school chemical buyer because early green efforts resulted in products that did not perform as well as their toxic and caustic counterparts. … The acceptance of bioactive products is just happening now."