The European Commission to clean up laundry detergents


The European Commission to clean up laundry detergents

A proposed regulation would uniformly limit phosphorous compounds in laundry detergents, resulting in a major reduction of pollution loads to the Danube River and beyond to the Black Sea.

Phosphates help improve the effectiveness of laundry detergents, but they also increase pollution in the Danube and can kill fish and other wildlife.

laundry detergents promise to leave your clothes clean, stain-free and with a pleasant fresh scent. New regulation is aiming to ensure that they help to keep rivers clean too.

The European Commission has published a proposal to amend the Detergents Regulation to restrict the use of phosphates in laundry detergents across the European Union. This will be a major contribution to improving the quality of water bodies in Europe, and the Danube River will strongly benefit from the ban: no less than 16% of the Danube’s phosphate loads stem from detergents.

The ICPDR played a crucial role in winning support for this regulation. “The ICPDR enabled the 14 Danube Basin States to speak with one voice on this important issue,” says Fritz Holzwarth, Head of the German Delegation to the ICPDR. “If one of the biggest river basins in Europe has a clear and coordinated viewpoint on how to phase out phosphates from detergents it is difficult to neglect this position.”

The trouble with phosphates. Phosphates, or compounds that contain phosphorous, are often added to detergents to make washing more effective. Phosphates soften hard water and help dissolve cleaning agents.

However, excess amounts of phosphates and other nutrients can cause eutrophication – an accelerated growth of algae and plants that leads to the disturbance in the balance of aquatic organisms.
Massive algae blooms deprive aquatic life of oxygen, and can kill fish, reduce biodiversity and alter the chemistry of a water body. Removing phosphates from wastewater is expensive and requires sophisticated technology that many wastewater treatment plants do not have.

Danube countries lead by example. Danube countries have been at the forefront of the push for phosphate-free alternatives, and several countries have already banned or limited the use of phosphates in laundry detergents. Austria and Germany have gone completely phosphate-free, and Slovenia and the Czech Republic have significantly limited the use of phosphates, by 75% and 50% respectively. Results in the Danube showed a significant reduction of pollution from phosphates.

“The fact that phosphates have been completely removed from laundry detergents in Germany for many years now proved that effective and feasible alternatives are available,” says Holzwarth. “A growing number of countries in the EU became aware of this situation and wanted to establish phosphate-free detergents on their markets as well.”

The Ministerial Declaration adopted in February 2010 by Danube water ministers stressed the importance of limiting phosphates in detergents. The Ministers described “limitations in phosphates as a particularly cost effective and necessary measure to complement the efforts of implementing urban wastewater treatment”.

Cooperation with the detergent industry. The International Association for Soaps, Detergents and Maintenance Products (AISE) welcomes the proposal. AISE is the official representative body for detergent and cleaning product industries in the EU. It has members in 28 countries including, in the Danube River Basin, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Austria and Germany. “We are in favour of the proposed regulation for a harmonised approach across Europe,” says Susanne Zänker, Director General of AISE, and members of AISE are committed to carrying out all necessary measures to ensure the adequate protection of the environment.

However, AISE would like to see changes in the way this phosphate limitation will be expressed. In the European Commission’s proposal, phosphates restriction is expressed as a maximum percentage of total phosphorus (0.5% by weight). AISE recommends expressing the restriction as a maximum of 0.5 grams per wash.

“As a specific amount is needed, regardless of the actual dose, the expression in percentage per wash would be detrimental to our sustainability efforts to further concentrate detergent products,” says Zänker. “If product effectiveness is jeopardised”, she argues, “we could see consumers washing loads twice.”

The future of detergents. The proposal is currently with the Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee, and a draft report is due later this spring. The ICPDR’s Pressures & Measures Expert Group will review the process considering the proposed EU regulation and assess the steps and consequences for non EU Member States.

Dishwashing detergents also contain phosphorus, and the ICPDR supports a plan to reduce and eliminate that source of phosphorus as well, although on a longer timeframe than for laundry detergents.

“If, in addition to all the other measures which are under implementation according to the Danube River Basin Management Plan, a phosphates ban for laundry detergents would be in place in 2012 and for dishwasher detergents in 2015, we could get close to allowing the Black Sea ecosystems to recover to conditions similar to those observed in the 1960s,” says Holzwarth.

Kirstie Shepherd is a freelance journalist living in Vienna and has called the Danube River Basin home since 2000.