You may have already noticed the changes on your retailer's counter, as dishwashing detergents in Illinois have been reformulated to comply with the partial ban of phosphorus taking effect July 1. In my store, our shelves have been naked for weeks, waiting for the new product to arrive. Now that it is here, legislators and environmentalists alike hope that this change will have a dramatic effect on our waterways.
Phosphorus is one of the leading causes of water pollution. A fertilizer, phosphorus gives a great boost to the growth of algae and plants. This development can be so overwhelming it blocks sunlight and can deplete the oxygen needed by other marine life. As these plants die, the process of decay and the bacteria residue continue to suck oxygen from the water. Fish and other aquatic life can suffocate in such an environment.
The Regulation of Phosphorus in Detergents Act prohibits the manufacturing, distribution, sale and use of cleaning agents containing more than 0.5 percent phosphorus by weight. In Illinois the legislation was passed in 2007 but gave manufacturers three years to reduce their use of phosphorus from the previously acceptable rate of 8.7 percent. Since hand washing liquids are already phosphate free, the law only affects automatic detergents used for residential purposes. Commercial cleaners are not affected by the ban.
The removal of phosphates from cleaning supplies actually began in the 1970s, when the eutrophication of many lakes and rivers across the country became quite the hot topic. At that time laundry detergents had a phosphorus level of five to 17 percent by weight. Since one pound of phosphate can produce seven hundred pounds of algae, by diligently washing our clothes we coated our freshwaters in green slime. In 1993 the ban finally took effect, but not for automatic dish soaps. The industry, claiming that starchy foods like macaroni and cheese took more to clean, was sheltered with the 8.7 percent by weight, which ends this week.
While the ban began in Spokane County, Wash., this week it rolls out across all counties in Washington as well as Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah, Vermont, Virginia and Wisconsin. A year after the law passed in Spokane, the sewage treatment plant measured 10.7 percent less phosphorus entering their facility. This new regulation will also be financially rewarding to many treatment facilities, as they currently doctor polluted water with aluminum or iron salts to reduce the phosphorus to an acceptable concentration.
Of course people are already complaining about the new products. In Spokane people brag about crossing the border to buy their favorite brands and smuggling soap home from the market in Idaho. Online users spout off that they are using more energy and water to get their dishes clean, as they run each load through several cycles to supposedly obtain the same result as they had with their former formula. But others tell them to pre-wash their dishes, use a little elbow grease, and try another brand as several prove to be better than expected.
For those individuals wanting to avoid phosphates in other products, take a look at your lawn fertilizer. To tell if it is phosphate free, the middle number in its formula must be zero, such as 20-0-6 or 15-0-5. Legislators in several states are also noticing these numbers and determining whether the ban will stretch into lawn care products as well.
My store's shelves are full again, with everyone's favorite brands reformulated and ready for the partial ban that begins Thursday. The big winners — for once — are the fish. Let's push this to all states and watch as we set an example for the world to follow!