There is an overwhelming choice of laundry detergents on the supermarket shelf – bio or non-bio, fragrance free, powder or liquid. But which is the greenest?
Mainstream detergent companies are claiming to be good for the planet with their energy saving messages of ‘Turn to 30°C’ or even 15°C. Up to 90 per cent of the energy used when washing clothes goes on heating the water(4) so turning down the temperature dial will clearly make a difference. Turning the temperature down just 10°C saves 100g of CO2 per wash.(13)
Unilever has also claimed that if all its customers switched to using compact powder and concentrated liquids it would save 4.3 million tons of CO2 a year – equivalent to taking a million cars off the road each year.(2)
Whilst these measures are undoubtedly important and reduce your carbon impact, they do not address the issue of problem ingredients. Focussing on washing temperature obscures the fact that laundry detergent is full of chemicals that have an impact on both the environment and our health.
Not all eco campaigners agree that the issue of ingredients and their impact should be taken as seriously as low temperatures.
Green guru Julia Hailes, author of The New Green Consumer Guide, claims that water authorities today are no longer greatly concerned about detergent waste – they get a far bigger headache from water running off farmland contaminated by fertilisers and animal waste.(4) She says that the temperature of the wash is the most significant issue and so recommends buying biological detergents (which contain enzymes “pivotal to effective cleaning at low temperatures”) in the most concentrated form you can find (smaller doses cut down on packaging and transport).(4) But, see ‘Enzymes’ below for comment on enzymes and low temperatures.
However, The Ecologist says that: “Detergents that are phosphate-free, not animal tested, biodegradable and packaged in recyclable containers should be at the top of your list. Efficacy at 30°C is also worth looking for as these detergents need less energy.”(3)
Loose or tablet, liquid or powder?
A Defra study in 2009(34) looked at the environmental impact of cleaning clothes with phosphate-free detergents. The key conclusions from the study were to use concentrated detergents, don’t overdose and wash at 30°C. It found that:
- concentrated powders and liquids perform better over a range of environmental indicators largely due to use of less chemicals per wash.
- liquids tend to perform better than powders across most indicators (acidification, human toxicity, climate change, ozone depletion and photochemical smog), apart from eutrophication and aquatic toxicity.
- tablets and capsules tend to perform worse than loose versions because of packaging and because their production requires more energy. Loose versions also help you use less detergent than the manufacturers would like you to use.
The downside of liquid detergents is that they are packaged in plastic bottles rather than paper or cardboard as powders often are. See ‘Bottle or Box?’.
A word about fabric softeners
Fabric softeners are made from mild detergents and ‘cationic’ surfactants which leave a positive charge on the fabric making it feel soft. They basically work in the same way as hair conditioners.
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, fabric softeners and tumble dryer sheets contain an enormous number of potentially toxic chemicals many of which are left on your clothes. These chemicals are irritants, can cause allergic reactions and can affect the central nervous system.(6)
Fragrance is one way that manufacturers try to differentiate their products and the regular off-gassing of perfume chemicals from fabric softeners can be a significant trigger for asthma and other breathing problems.(19)
Laundry and dishwasher EU Ecolabels
Life-cycle analyses undertaken for the EU Ecolabel research for laundry detergents showed that the use phase and the product formulation are the largest contributors to most of the environmental impacts. So the scope of the Ecolabel criteria primarily relates to the promotion of products that can be used at lower temperatures (30°C) and the chemical composition of the products (and thus the impact on the aquatic environment) .
For laundry and dishwasher detergents, the Ecolabel criteria requires no phosphates. It does not, however, promote renewable raw materials which is why Ecover have not applied for the label: “The criteria for the Ecolabel, although strict, do not go far enough. For example, sourcing of raw materials isn’t taken into consideration. We believe that this is an essential consideration in developing an ecological product.”(25)
There is only one laundry detergent, Simply that has applied for and been awarded the EU Ecolabel.
What’s in your laundry detergent?
Surfactants are the main active ingredients in cleaning products. The word surfactant stems from the combination of words ‘surface-active agents’. They work by keeping the dirt suspended in the water. There are three main types that you might see listed- anionic (negatively charged), non-ionic (no charge) and cationic (positively charged). Surfactants can be made from plant oils such as coconut oil or sugar, or from crude oil.
The EU law requires that surfactants used in domestic detergents must be “ultimately biodegradable” which actually means they must break down by 60% within 28 days. However, this only applies to the detergents (which form 3% to 20% of the total product), and only under conditions where oxygen is present. Most biodegradation actually happens in conditions without oxygen present, so these detergents are unable to break down fully which is a problem for waste water treatment plants.(25)
The main surfactant used by the industry is LAS (Linear Alkylbenzene Sulfonate) which is derived from crude oil and is not ‘anaerobically biodegradable’ (will not biodegrade unless oxygen is present), says Alastair Lidstone, New Product Development Manager for Ecover.(1) According to research for the EU Ecolabel: “High concentrations of the commonly used surfactant LAS can be found in sludge from waste water treatment plants. Given that waste water management systems are not well developed in many EU countries and that concentration in sludge exceeds the predicted no-effect concentration (and therefore the environmental effects cannot be excluded) it is crucial to minimize risks as far as possible. Especially in situations when alternatives are easily available.”(27)
The alternative surfactants used by companies such as Ecover and Bio D are plant-based and are claimed to be 100% biodegradable within seven days or less. They are typically sourced from coconut or rapeseed oil or sugar, all renewable sources.
Ecover says “Our products are fully degradable in anaerobic and aerobic conditions. That means all the ingredients are decomposed, not just the detergents.”(25)
This biodegradability means that they need less water to neutralise their impact on the water supply.(2) For instance, it takes 10,000 to 12,000 litres of water to treat every wash using non-ecological washing powder until it is safe to re-enter our water system. Ecover biological washing powder can take less than 4,000 litres for every wash.(3)
Furthermore, since synthetic surfactants are largely made from the waste materials of the petroleum industry, their use contributes to the depletion of a non-renewable resource, not to mention the impacts of drilling, extraction, refining and transportation. A study in the US found that if every household replaced a 800 ml bottle of petroleum based cleaner with a plant-based one, it would save 118,700 barrels of oil in one year, enough to heat 6800 average American homes.(6)
Synthetic fragrances are used by most mainstream detergents. The word ‘Fragrance’ or ‘Parfum’ on a label represents an undisclosed mixture of various scent chemicals and ingredients—including hormone-disrupting phthalates, synthetic musks, and ethylene oxide. Phthalates are hormone disrupting chemicalswhich can affect reproductive development and fertility.(7) Fragrance mixes have also been associated with allergies, dermatitis and respiratory problems. Alternative producers are either fragrance-free or they use essential oils.
Optical brighteners make clothes look cleaner than they are by using chemicals called stilbenes which reflect light. However, they do not biodegrade. They pass through the sewage treatment works and are easily detected in our rivers and seas.(2) Stilbenes are also suspected hormone disruptors, are toxic to fish and may cause allergic reactions when in contact with the skin.(4) Eco detergents don’t use optical brighteners which is why they don’t perform well in Which? tests where ‘whiteness’ is a ratings category.
Phosphates (and phosphonates) are water softeners, but their release into waterways can lead to algal blooms that stifle fish and other aquatic life.(1) Although their use has halved since the 1980s when this ingredient attracted much criticism, they are still an issue.
Detergents are the third largest source of phosphate discharge into surface water after agriculture (mainly from fertilisers and livestock feed), and human sewage.(16)
The Environment Agency advises consumers to:
- buy phosphate-free brands
- use less detergent
- use laundry liquid (which contains less phosphate than powders or tablets)(24)
According to The Ecologist: “The average UK wastewater treatment plant is unable to remove phosphates from the water, and the relatively small proportion that do use a chemical-stripping process are using ferric salts, which are toxic. The process generates large amounts of phosphate-rich sludge, which tends to end up in landfill.”(4)
Strip mining for phosphates has devastated swathes of African countryside, particularly in countries such as Morocco and Togo, where the substance forms one of its main exports.(1)
The EU has made a commitment to reducing the amount of phosphates and phosphonates in washing powder to no more than 0.5 grams per standard dose by June 2013.(1)
Sweden, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Norway, Austria and the Czech Republic have all already effectively banned phosphates in household detergents.(4) Alternative eco brands do not use phosphates.
Biological detergents contain enzymes which, although they are natural, are known to cause allergic reactions such as asthma and dermatitis. This might especially be a problem for workers manufacturing the products. Enzymes are proteins and are made from selected strains of bacteria. They are used to digest stains.(6)
Unlike the rest of Europe where enzymes are in virtually all washing detergents, UK consumers are not keen on enzymes and manufacturers have had to split their products into bio and non-bio.(1)
Bio-D’s Managing Director Lloyd Atkin explains why they don’t use enzymes; “Although they are effective cleaners, enzymes are very aggressive for people with allergies and we feel it is important that our customers can select any product in the Bio-D range and be confident that it is unlikely to aggravate their condition.Many of the mainstream biological formulas utilise several different enzymes to attack different stains and this cocktail of chemicals can make allergy sufferers more prone to a reaction.”
According to Ecover who use enzymes, enzymes replace the need for more surfactants: “An addition of 1-2% of enzymes replaces a tenfold amount of surfactant. Enzymes work naturally at body temperature, so a wash at 40 degrees is where they work most efficiently. In order to make them work at other temperatures, they can be genetically modified to do a job which they weren’t naturally created for.”(25)
So conventional products may use genetically-modified enzymes to get them to work at 30°C or below. Ecover itself does not use genetically modified enzymes but currently “the enzymes themselves are generated from a micro organism that has undergone modification to increase its capacity to produce the enzyme”. Ecover is looking for an alternative source for its enzymes.
Alternative laundry cleaners
Leaving out the detergent altogether is the greenest option for laundry. The movement of water and clothes inside a washing machine is enough to release some dirt and freshen up a lightly-soiled load. However, water alone cannot compete with detergents – even the worst Which? tested – when it comes to stain removal.
Soapnuts (soapnut shells)
These contain a completely natural detergent called saponin, and can be composted after use. Soapnuts come from the soapnut tree which grows naturally in India and Nepal – and are a renewable source.
Which? tested soapnuts in 2009(21) and found that at 30°C, the soapnuts were no better than water alone. In response, a reader’s letter later that year said: “I have found that the nuts only work well if I wash at 60°C. At 40°C, I recommend soaking them in hot water for a while or, even better, overnight in cold water. If I’m doing the washing at 30°C, I use only ‘nut stock’ – prepared by boiling the nuts for 10 to 20 minutes.”
Available from www.soapnuts.co.uk, www.inasoapnutshell.com or
Wash balls are plastic balls filled with pellets which claim to unleash ‘ionic cleaning power’ so you don’t have to use detergent. They are fragrance free and rinse cycles aren’t needed as there is no traditional detergent to wash away. Ecozone’s Ecoballs claim to be reusable for up to 1,000 washes. There has been much debate about whether they actually work or not or whether they are any more effective than plain water.
Simeon Van der Molen from Ecozone had this to say: “We sell both the Ecoballs and our own Laundry Liquid as we wish to offer the consumer a choice, as many cannot give up their traditional ways of using liquid or powder. At least with Ecozone either version that the consumer buys both products are certified by the BUAV and The Vegan Society.”
“The Ecoballs are the product that started our passion for planet friendly cleaning and for the majority of consumers whose expectations are not too high they are pleasantly surprised by the results. We have always been very honest about the product and never made wild claims about their efficiency and still offer a 30 day money back guarantee, which is seldom taken up.When in direct contact with the customer we always make it clear that the Ecoballs will not get your whites whiter than white, they respect us for this and accept that an in wash booster may be required. We use the term ‘everyday clothes’ for which Ecoballs are perfect for.These days clothes just worn once only require freshening up – is it really necessary to use scoops of powder or liquid just for this wash when the Ecoballs can suffice?”
“The Ecoballs work by reducing the surface tension of the water whereby the water penetrates the clothing fibres easier. They increase the PH level of the water and they also contain a condensed detergent released by these pellets gradually to sufficiently generate cleaning effects on lightly soiled cloths. For stains we always suggest using the stain remover provided.”
Which? tested wash balls in 2009.(21) They found that they washed less effectively at 30°C than traditional laundry detergents. Most barely cleaned better than water alone. In every case in their tests, the wash balls removed more dirt with extra help from stain removers.
1 How green is your washing powder? - The Ecologist, 3rd February 2012 2 Cleaner Planet plan: a green wash or greenwash? The Ecologist 18th August 2009 3 Five of the best eco friendly detergents, The Ecologist, 8th July 2011 4 Is turning to 30°C enough?, The Ecologist, 27th July 2009 6 What’s in this stuff? Pat Thomas, 2006 13 How bad are bananas?, Mike Berners-Lee, 2010 Profile Books 19 Behind the Label: Comfort Fabric Softener, The Ecologist, 12th February 2009 21 Which? January 2009 24 Environment Agency website - Phosphate information and education, viewed 8th March 2012 25 Guardian website www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/mar/16/ecover-q-a-questions-debate-green-cleaning, March 2009 27 EU ecolabel for laundry detergents and detergents for dishwashers for professional use - EEB and BEUC position 13/10/2011 34 Reducing the environmental impact of clothes cleaning, Defra, December 2009