Cet article fait partie des 112 cas de l’économie bleue.

Cet article fait partie d’une liste de 112 innovations qui façonnent l’économie bleue. Il s’inscrit dans le cadre d’un vaste effort de Gunter Pauli pour stimuler l’esprit d’entreprise, la compétitivité et l’emploi dans les logiciels libres. Pour plus d’informations sur l’origine de ZERI.

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Cas 23 : Clean without Soap

Apr 8, 2022 | 100 Innovations, 112 Innovations, Eau, Water

The market

The current world market for cleaning services exceeds 150 billion dollars. Of this amount more than 60 billion is generated in Europe and nearly 50 billion in the US alone. It is probably the most entrepreneurial and labor intensive sector in the world with growth rates hovering around 10 percent for years in a row. There are 135,000 cleaning contractors in Europe, and 386,000 in the USA. Worldwide about a million companies provide professional cleaning services. The European cleaning business employs 3.5 million staff, three quarters on part time and on the average they work 24 hours per week. Three out of four employees are women. The US employs just under one million, indicating that the size of individual companies is very small indeed.

Cleaning services benefited from a rapid expansion because of the wide application of outsourcing by both the private sector and the government. Market penetration has reached in Europe nearly 65 percent, implying that two thirds of companies and agencies have opted to contract out their cleaning services, instead of employing in-house staff. While there are hundreds of thousands of small companies, some large conglomerates have emerged like ISS from Denmark and ABM Industries Inc. in the USA. ISS operates in 50 countries worldwide and employs 485,000 staff to handle some 200,000 business to business clients. Over the past decade ISS has acquired more than 600 companies thus fueling its growth strategy by professionalizing the sector.

The growth in cleaning and janitorial services has catalyzed the development of related businesses. It has lead to strategic alliances between the service providers, the janitorial equipment makers and the chemical suppliers. Even though labor represents by far the largest portion of the cost, the cleaning service industry represents over 30 billion dollars in annual capital and operations expenditures. This sector represents the largest application of the concept of industrial franchising in the world with an estimated 100,000 outlets worldwide.


Since labor is the largest expense, the industry has invested in labor saving devices. From automatic dispensing machines that dose the right amount of water with the right amount of soap, to automated building maintenance units that clean outside windows, to the development of maintenance systems that evolve from cleanliness to health and environmental management introducing a new range of chemicals. The search for innovations is concentrated in automation systems and in chemistry, making the load on the workers lighter.


Prof. Dr. Wilhelm Barthlott, Director of the botanical gardens at the University of Bonn (Germany) started mapping biodiversity around the world, he became fascinated with (1) carnivorous plants; and, (2) the self-cleaning properties of biological surfaces. The first passion lead to one of the world’s largest collections of carnivorous plants, the second passion let to the development of self-cleaning surface technologies in cooperation with industry. This effect has become known as “The Lotus Effect”, which is based on hydrophobicity (water repellent) combined with nanoscale surface design that dramatically reduces adhesion of particle. This removes dirt by minute water droplets, as little as morning dew. This implies that one not only reduces the labor input, but the business model eliminates the regular use of chemicals. One day this could put car wash companies out of business, since the car will be rendered clean the day it rains.



The self-cleaning of lotus flowers has been described in Chinese and Japanese literature for hundreds of years. The field of self-cleaning has interested academia in Asia for decades. Prof. Dr. Emile Ishida, as Chief Technology Officer of INAX, Japan’s second largest producer of sanitation ceramics, observed how water flows through seashells, processing hundreds of liter without ever getting dirty on the inside. He studied snails, maintaining their inside clear. He identified another nanoscale surface design, different from the lotus flower, but as effective. This lead to the development of a surface coating for the inside of toilets that secure a spotless look. Actually, most toilets bowls get stained over time, not from contact with human waste, but rather from the harsh chemicals applied to provide a clean look and smell at low temperature without any friction. Physics, and physical chemistry replaces chemistry and automation equipment. Unfortunately, most of the applications that emerged still rely on fluor chemistry. More innovations are needed to make this breakthrough truly sustainable.

The first cash flow

Prof. Barthlott decided to stay in the world of academia and research. Prof. Ishida joined academia after retiring from INAX. Both have helped numerous industries build up a product portfolio inspired by their innovative insights and a strong portfolio of patents. The first commercial product that turned mainstream worldwide is a facade paint marketed as Lotusan. First introduced a decade ago, there are already an estimated 500,000 buildings worldwide covered in this paint. These buildings do not need any cleaning maintenance for minimum five years.

The opportunity

The concept of self-cleaning and detergent-free maintenance offers numerous opportunities for entrepreneurs in a business service that is characterized by thousands of small operators. Provided that the chemical suppliers of the world opt for silicone treatments on structured surfaces instead of fluor chemistry, then a wide portfolio of new business models will soon impose themselves on the market. The application is not limited to cleaning, it also offers protection against fungi which under certain conditions cannot adhere to the surface. Today the application of technology inspired by an animal (snail) and a plant (lotus) is finding its way to building surfaces, solar panels, fabrics, medical equipment, and even traffic sensors and anti-icing equipment. Whereas research funds are quickly flowing into a wide variety of commercial applications, and large chemical groups like Evonik (Germany) are joining the bandwagon, the real short term application is to design cleaning systems for offices and homes that eliminate the needs for contaminating chemicals. We should not forget that simple cleaning works great when temperature, pressure and friction rises, and that the use of chemicals, even biochemicals on a daily basis should be the last resort, instead of the first option. This innovation gives rise to a new business model which is ecological, it is competitive and has the potential to generate jobs with higher revenues. In addition, it will provide smarter service content than the ones that are currently dominant in the cleaning industry today.

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