How one US businessman living in Thailand cracked nature’s code and discovered a remarkably effective natural cleaning agent
Intuitively, it makes sense once you know the solution. Who hasn’t eaten one too many pieces of pineapple and thought to themselves: that has bite!
The tangy, acidic tropical fruit, it turns out, offers more than just a sweet, refreshing taste. It can also act, if harnessed correctly, as a potent natural cleaning agent, working equally well in products as diverse as laundry detergent, baby bottle cleaner, and liquid hand soap.
Peter Wainman, a US businessman who has lived and worked in Thailand for more than a decade, first tapped into this hidden potential in 2010, when his company Equator Pure Nature—the manufacturer of Pipper Standard-branded products—began searching for new ways to create natural cleaning agents.
A lifelong sufferer of allergies, Wainman had recently endured an extreme allergic outbreak that left painful, burning rashes on his skin. The cause, he discovered, was the chemical residue from his fabric softener.
“At the time, there was hardly any information about the link between chemicals used for cleaning in the home and serious allergies. I didn’t even consider the possibility it was something on my clothing,” he recalled.
“In my research, I learned that the chemical residue from this fabric softener essentially would never fully wash out, so every piece of clothing I owned was a potential health risk,” he added.
Startled by the discovery, Wainman threw out all of his clothes, and he and his wife purged their house of chemical cleaners. But they ran into problems when they tried to find alternatives. They realized there were no professional, effective natural cleaning products widely available in Thailand. “I turned to my wife and said, ‘Let’s just make these ourselves.’”
Wainman, who had studied engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and had previously worked in research and development, oversaw the R&D process in Bangkok, hiring a microbiologist, a chemist, and lab assistants to help conduct the tests.
Four years and thousands of experiments later—they tested many fruits and herbs, including lime, roselle, banana, and others—they hit upon their perfect solution: a fermentation process that required only water, sugar, and pineapple, each of which was abundantly available in Thailand.
The sugar-fruit solution was fermented with lactic acid bacteria, the same probiotic bacteria used to create yogurt, and the result was a natural cleaning fluid full of biosurfactants, organic acids, and powerful enzymes.
Most importantly, Wainman said, the solution cleaned comparably to chemical cleaners “without adding any harmful chemicals.” Pipper Standard’s products, which have since launched in 12 markets across Asia, are all non-irritation and hypoallergenic-certified, and free of known allergens, he said.
“There was, and still is, a rising trend in the US and Europe toward using natural products,” Wainman said. “That trend is still new in Asia. But as consumers learn about the potential health risks posed by their household cleaning products, it’s easy for them to switch to natural products. A lot of what we do is education because, like me, many people don’t know about the association between their health issues and the chemicals in their homes,” he added.
When he was battling his allergies, the American clean-tech entrepreneur wasn’t alone. Allergy and asthma rates are skyrocketing around the world—and particularly in Asia. In Thailand, 49 per cent of children in greater Bangkok now suffer from allergies, an increase of 33 per cent from just two decades ago. In China, one-third of the country’s population (around 460 million people) has allergies, according to the World Allergy Organization.
The sharp increase, doctors say, is driven in large part by the rapid urbanization that’s occurring in the region, as industrial pollution and vehicle fumes heighten people’s sensitivities to common allergy and asthma triggers.
Earlier this year, the environmentalist group Greenpeace declared that Bangkok was experiencing “the worst air pollution in its history,” citing the global-standard Air Quality Index, which spiked to “very unhealthy” levels, the second-worst level, just below “hazardous.”
A less well-known factor causing allergy rates to surge, along with a host of other health problems, is overexposure to everyday chemicals. But doctors—and consumers—are quickly connecting the dots.
“The question for me has always been: What can I control in my environment?” said Kamolthip Jirasetpatana, a Thai mother who embraced natural products after the birth of her son, who is now nine-months-old.
“I can’t do anything about the air pollution or traffic, but I can choose what I bring into my house,” the Bangkok resident said. “After I switched from chemicals products to natural ones, I felt better personally, and I also think it was the right thing to do for my child’s health.”
In the US, household-cleaning brands like Seventh Generation, Method, and Honest Company are part of a booming industry that’s upended the traditional chemical-cleaner market in recent years, as consumers increasingly seek out natural product alternatives.
These shifting winds mirror other consumer movements that already swept through the food and cosmetics industries, prompting a widespread drive toward organic, fresh food—the huge popularity of farmers’ markets is a perfect illustration—and toward all-natural cosmetics, skincare and makeup.
“We are beginning to see a definite shift in consumer mindset in Asia toward awareness about the chemicals people are being exposed to in their everyday lives,” Wainman said.
His company is at the forefront of these changes in Asia. In May, the European Patent Office awarded Pipper Standard three patents for its fermented fruit technology. In June, China’s state intellectual property office granted them a patent, too. These followed multiple other patents previously awarded in the US, Singapore, and Taiwan.
“To our knowledge, we are the only natural cleaning brand in the world with patented technology,” Wainman said.
Pipper Standard is also the only mass-marketed brand wholly produced in Southeast Asia, and it has emerged as a market leader in natural household cleaning products in the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). Wainman said his company aims to be the market leader in greater China by 2020.
“After my allergic reaction, I was more careful about what I used in my home, but I also wanted to find a way to ensure other people didn’t suffer as I did,” he said. “I had a terrible allergic reaction, and I would prefer that other people not have that kind of thing happen to them.”
By William Jangles