So What Makes Washing Powder (Not) Eco Friendly?

March 1, 2008 at 9:48 am Leave a comment

michael blochThe days of the washing board are long gone and while modern appliances have made the chore of clothes washing somewhat easier, they’ve also encouraged excesses in terms of the amount of water we use, energy we consume and chemicals we release into the environment. For some reason, the Australians are most gung ho on this issue. So this is a guest post by the Australian Michael Bloch who writes GreenLivingTips.com.

Laundry detergents tend to contain complex chemical cocktails made up surfactants, builders, bleaches, colorants, optical brighteners, fragrances and solvent ingredients. Many components are synthesized from crude oil and while the brand may claim biodegradability, breakdown can take some time; creating a buildup in waterways. Toxic substances such as carcinogens and other compounds that are deadly to aquatic life can also be produced during the degrading process or through interaction with other chemicals.

Components such as colorants really aren’t necessary – they are often just there to make them pleasing to the eye as you pour them out. Fragrances are of particular concern as companies often aren’t required to detail what these are comprised of.

Just about every supermarket these days offers “earth friendly” detergents and usually you’ll find they are quite a bit cheaper too due to the no-frills, low active chemical approach – yet they can be just as effective. The “extra cleaning power” you often see advertised for major brands usually means extra of the base chemicals, plus some other nasties thrown in; and the more is better approach really doesn’t apply to the average household washing needs – you’re just paying more for what is effectively only a byproduct of marketing. When shopping for detergent, compare chemical percentages – even between the earth friendly brands. Less of X ingredient doesn’t necessarily mean a poorer wash, but will likely mean less of a toll on the environment and your wallet.

In Australia, there’s an estimated 500 million household wash loads consuming 120,000 tonnes of chemicals per year. While the brand we use at home couldn’t be called totally green, the lower/lesser chemical formulation has proven effective and safe for our blackwater recycling system. If everyone used a similar brand; annual laundry detergent chemical consumption would plummet to 4,000 tonnes according to the detergent company’s web site. That’s an incredible 3000% reduction in chemical waste to achieve the same washing results – and at far less cost to the consumer.

Another ingredient to watch for in washing detergents are phosphates. While a naturally occurring substance, if too much phosphate is present in a body of water, it can spark the growth of algal blooms which can then have a suffocating or toxic effect on other aquatic life forms. Phosphate in laundry detergent really isn’t necessary, so avoid it altogether if possible.
If you need a bit of extra punch to your wash in terms of bleaching, consider adding a 1/2 cup of lemon juice to the rinse cycle and hang clothes outside to dry. By the way, a teaspoon of lemon juice thrown into your wash can also help your clothes to smell fresher! Other more environmentally friendly alternatives to brightening are a half cup of baking soda thrown into the wash, or half a cup of borax. Another big issue with detergents is the elaborate packaging and amount of water in the product, so opt for concentrates in recyclable packaging. There are also “uber-green” laundry detergents available that are entirely plant based – no synthetic chemicals; but expect to pay quite a bit more for those. On his own blog, Michael offers tips on pre-wash treatments, load size, water levels, cold water, greywater collection and drying.

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Entry filed under: Green Concepts Explained, The Planet's Resources. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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