Is phasing out phosphates the answer for detergents sector?

A clean bill of health

17 June 2008 00:00  [Source: ICB]

The use of phosphates in detergents continues to come under scrutiny because of their ecological impact. But is a ban really the answer?

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Andy Brice/London

ENVIRONMENTALISTS CONTINUE to express deep concern about the phosphates content of soaps and detergents.

Controversy surrounding phosphates - a common ingredient used in household detergents to enhance their cleaning properties - has been simmering for decades.

Sodium tripolyphosphate (STPP) can contribute to nutrient levels in water and the growth of oxygen-depleting algae. This phenomenon, known as eutrophication, can be detrimental to fish and plant life, and has become a major concern to both lobby groups and governments globally.

The US is already taking a firm stance, in a bid to improve water quality in its lakes and rivers and to reduce the considerable cost of water treatment.

From July 1 it will be illegal to sell household dishwashing detergents containing more than 0.5% phosphorus in Spokane County in the state of Washington. According to its Department of Ecology, some 260 bodies of water in the state are polluted with phosphorus.

This ban, passed in 2006, is the first of its kind. The US-based Soap and Detergent Association (SDA) has since supported similar legislation nationwide to establish a uniform effective date of July 1, 2010.

Across the Atlantic, the European Commission is continuing its ongoing assessment of the environmental impact of phosphates on its waterways and plans to publish a new report looking at the risks later this year.

A study published by the Commission in 2007 said that some 1.8m tonnes of detergents containing phosphate are used each year in the EU 25 - equivalent to around 110,000 tonnes/year of phosphorus. Of that, 90-95% is consumed in domestic laundry and dishwashing detergents.


Although there is no harmonized legislation banning phosphate use in Europe, many countries have opted to impose outright legal bans or adopt voluntary measures.

This has resulted in the detergent builder gradually being phased out and substituted with alternatives such as zeolite A and sodium citrate.

"Eutrophication is a complex environmental process that depends on both region and geography," says the responsible policy officer at the European Commission.

"In the absence of harmonized measures, member states can take national legislative measures to restrict phosphate use, if such measures are justified and proportionate, but quite a few have instead relied on voluntary action by industry," he says.

"Whilst the overall amount of STTP used in detergents is decreasing, there are significant differences between the member states in terms of market shares of phosphates and alternatives.

"Voluntary agreements were effective in some European countries to reduce the overall use of phosphates in detergents, although their effect on water quality improvement cannot be precisely estimated, as the EU member states are still in the process of defining good water quality under the Water Framework Directive," says the policy officer.

"The extent of tertiary treatment implemented by each country under the EU Waste Water Treatment Directive will also play an important role."

Those countries that have adopted voluntary action, such as Denmark, Finland, Belgium, France and the Netherlands have found it successful, and water quality has improved considerably.


However, specifically in the new member states in Eastern Europe, there is still a large incidence of phosphate use.

Similarly, the Danube basin in Central Europe is also a high-risk region. Europe's second-longest river runs for almost 2,800km, (1,740 miles) from Germany to the Black Sea. For years, Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic have been among the countries campaigning to convince producers to phase out phosphates, in a bid to limit their discharge into the river.

Nevertheless, for all the pleas and controversy, the European Centre for the Study of Phosphates (CEEP), which is a European Chemical Industry Council (Cefic) sector group, has said that the environmental impact of phosphate-free detergents may be of little benefit anyway, if EU legislation is correctly implemented.

CEEP says the application of the Waste Water Treatment Directive means phosphates should have already been removed by the tertiary water treatment plants.


Furthermore, dishwashing detergents are not the sole source of phosphorus in surface water, and are by no means the greatest contributor, says Niels Thyssen, project manager water and biodiversity at the European Environment Agency.

"It's a real environmental problem in terms of algae growth, and in Europe and the US, an awful lot of money has been spent on wastewater treatment that removes phosphorus," says Thyssen. "But detergents represent a relatively small proportion of the problem, probably less than 10%.

"In many rivers, up to 50% of the phosphorus comes from agriculture," he says. "Removing it [from detergents] does help, but in many cases, it would be more worthwhile to put measures in place against agriculture."

Although unlikely, some argue that a far simpler and less expensive solution could be simply encouraging the switch to organic farming from conventional methods. This could slash phosphate output by up to 80%.

Although it is debatable whether the removal of phosphates from household cleaning products is actually beneficial to the environment, producers agree that it is not great news for the industry.

Changing the composition of detergents can prove costly, particularly for smaller firms, and would require extensive testing to establish whether the substitutions would also impact the environment or pose a health risk. A switch to alternative ingredients, such as citrates and zeolites, could also cause significant disruption to the supply chain.

"When you remove phosphorus, there is no direct substitute. Companies have to agree upon new formulations, realign their supply chain, and then calibrate their production facilities," says Dennis Griesing, who is the vice president of governmental affairs at the SDA.

"One example is sodium citrate. We'd expect that more will be used instead of phosphate. In order to supply the new market, we're assuming plants will be expanded or new capacity will be built," he says. "But perhaps the most complex part is that they will then have to begin a swap-out of the old product for the new. That's why they asked for four years to do it all they need time to get the nonconforming product off the shelves."

Whether the consumer will suffer as a result of these efforts, remains to be seen. While there are suggestions that the alternatives are not as effective, citrates, gluconates and carbonates also tend to be more expensive and could therefore hit the customer in the pocket, too.

Nevertheless, many big-name players are already starting to adapt to the new regulations and introduce new products.

In April, Colgate-Palmolive launched its phosphate-free dishwashing detergent, Eco, in the US.

Other suppliers such as US-based Seventh Generation and Belgium's Ecover have been phosphate-free for years.

"We understood the role of phosphates even before it was really recognized as a problem. When our company was founded in 1980, that was one of the first things we did," says Peter Malaise, Ecover concept manager.

A one-for-one substitution of phosphates is not possible with environmentally sound ingredients, he says. With conventional chemistry, such as polycarboxylates and phosphonates, you can come close, but the environment still pays the price.

"Phosphates are very easy, lazy, raw materials but there is no one-for-one substitute - the alternatives cannot do the same it's like replacing iron with cardboard. This certainly won't be easy, as producers aren't always willing to change their bad habits."

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