Dear EarthTalk: What are the best kinds of dishwasher and laundry soaps to use in consideration of where all the wastewater goes after use?
-- Jessica Weichert, Waterford, CA
The average North American produces between 60 and 150 gallons of wastewater every day, much of it a result of washing dishes and clothes. Municipal water treatment facilities do their best to filter out the synthetic chemicals common in most mainstream dishwasher and laundry soaps, but some of these pollutants inevitably get into rivers, lakes and coastal areas, where they can cause a wide range of problems.
Perhaps the most worrisome of these pollutants, phosphates, can cause large build-ups of algae and bacteria that rob water bodies of oxygen and thus choke out other life forms. In response to just such a problem occurring in Lakes Ontario and Erie in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the U.S. and Canada signed the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in 1972. The agreement banned the use of phosphates in laundry detergents and dish soaps used in the region, and resulted in a significant decrease in algae blooms throughout the Great Lakes.
Despite the success of the agreement, phosphates and other synthetic chemicals continue to be widely used in laundry and dish soaps throughout the world. Aside from their effect on water bodies, these ingredients also trigger allergies, irritate the skin and eyes and carry other health risks.
Fortunately, consumers now have more environmentally friendly choices than ever. Companies such as Seventh Generation, Ecover, Bioshield and Naturally Yours make safer dishwasher and laundry soaps that do not contain phosphates or other harmful synthetic chemicals. Many of these greener options are available at retail stores like Whole Foods and Wild Oats as well as online from websites like Kokopelli’s Green Market and a host of others.
According to Seventh Generation CEO Jeffrey Hollender, consumers interested in doing the right thing for the environment should look at ingredients, not slogans. “Just because a product says it is natural doesn’t mean it is nontoxic,” he says. Environmentally friendly ingredients to look for include grain alcohol, coconut or other plant oils, rosemary and sage. Synthetic ingredients to avoid include butyl cellosolve, petroleum, triclosan and phosphates. It is also best to avoid detergents that employ fragrances, as they can contain chemicals known as phthalates that have been linked to cancer.
Although household-cleaning chores can often be accomplished with non-toxic, homemade alternatives—such as water mixed with borax, lemon juice, baking soda, vinegar or washing soda—laundry and automatic dishwashing soaps are not so easily replaced with home concoctions. However, Emily Main, senior editor at The Green Guide, recommends adding one-quarter cup of baking soda or white vinegar to clothes washes to act as a fabric softener, and for stain removal suggests soaking fabrics in water mixed with either borax, lemon juice, hydrogen peroxide or white vinegar. As to home recipes for dishwashing, some hardcore homesteaders recommend trying an equal mix of borax and baking soda, but this is probably best used only in a pinch as the abrasiveness of such a mixture can scratch glassware over time.