Proctor & Gamble announced this week that it plans to eliminate phosphates from its entire line of laundry detergents, including Tide. The move, which was reported by The Guardian on Monday, is more likely to affect developing nations where environmental regulations are limited. Most phosphate detergents have already been banned in Europe and North America.
"It's a win-win when you offer consumers a better product which is also environmentally friendlier," Giovanni Ciserani, the company's group president of global fabric and home care, told The Guardian. "Whenever you force them into a trade-off, you get a limited result.”
The removal of phosphates from dishwasher and laundry detergents in North America has been hailed a rare success story for environmentalism. After the inorganic chemicals were found to cause disastrous algal blooms throughout the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s, activists began calling for a ban on their use.
Since then, a number of major organizations, including Proctor & Gamble, have voluntarily nixed phosphates from detergents sold in Europe and North America. By 1994, a combined effort of U.S. manufacturers and state lawmakers led to the complete removal of phosphates from commercial laundry detergents. And in 2010, 17 states banned phosphates from dishwasher detergents. That was soon followed by a similar move in Europe.
While the environment has benefited from these bans in the form of fewer oxygen-starving algal blooms, dish- and clothes-washing has become, well... less effective. Phosphates, not surprisingly, contain phosphorous, which binds with iron—the principal ingredient in soil. This chemical relationship makes them remarkably effective at removing soil from clothing. In dishwashers, phosphates help suspend food particles during the wash cycle, preventing them from sticking. They also soften hard water to help create soap suds.
Unfortunately, phosphates are arguably just as effective at destroying aquatic ecosystems. Once discharged, they promote algae growth in local bodies of water—a major reason for the “dead zones” that have formed in Lake Erie in recent decades.
“These sudden blooms of algae trigger a process called eutrophication in which local waters become starved of oxygen and devoid of life,” claimed Seventh Generation, makers of green clean products, in a 2010 statement. “This issue is of special concern to anyone living near a lake or pond.”
New detergents rely on enzymes to degrade food soils and wash away clothing stains, but a considerable backlash among consumers suggests these cleaners are not as effective as those containing phosphates. Some consumers have even taken to adding phosphate concentrates directly into their detergents.
“The reality of any green product is that they generally don’t work as well,” Jessica Fischburg, a commerce manager at CleaningProductsWorld.com, told The New York Times. “Our customers really don’t like them.”
But the number of consumers who take it upon themselves to “beef up” their detergents is likely to remain small. And the fact that corporations are willingly entering into these bans suggests their economic toll is not severe enough to warrant a fight.
For consumers who find their clothes and dishes aren’t getting as clean as they used to, there are other ways to improve performance—such as routinely cleaning filters, pre-rinsing dishes, manually scrubbing stains, or making your own detergents. The fact is, phosphates are on their way out, and a little extra elbow grease never hurt anyone.
Detergent image: Flickr user "alykat" (CC-by 2.0)