The New York Times recently published an insightful article detailing the consumer frustration-bordering-on-furor generated by The Household Detergent and Nutrient Runoff Law enacted in July in 17 states. Because of the new restrictions, many dish detergent manufacturers have retooled their formulas to include drastically less phosphates, a naturally occurring chemical added to dishwashing detergents (and once upon a time, laundry detergents) that can taint lakes, rivers, and other fresh water systems once washed down the drain.

While good for the sparkle-hood of your dishes, phosphates are detrimental to the livelihood of fishes: when they enter water systems, algae starts to grow like gangbusters leading to the creation of dead zones, oxygen-starved areas where, as described by The National Ocean Service, “habitats that would normally be teeming with life become, essentially, biological deserts.”

The phosphates crackdown originally started in Washington, which lead to a whole lot of unhappy dishwashers crossing states lines to purchase contraband, phosphate-laden detergents and bring them back home. Now, with the levels of phosphates in detergents dropping to .5 percent from as high as 8.7 percent, folks are unhappy just about everywhere.

Why? Because many consumers believe that the fish-friendly alternatives to phosphate-based detergents simply don’t work. Thena Reynolds of Texas is part of that camp, saying that "low-phosphate dish detergents are a waste of my money. If I’m using more water and detergent, is that saving anything? There has to be a happy medium somewhere."

More than just touching down on the primal need many homemakers have for phosphate-based dish detergents, the NYT article addresses the questionable effectiveness of earth-friendly alternatives in general:

Yet now, with the content reduced, many consumers are finding the new formulas as appealing as low-flow showers, underscoring the tradeoffs that people often face today in a more environmentally conscious marketplace. From hybrid cars to solar panels, environmentally friendly alternatives can cost more. They can be less convenient, like toting cloth sacks or canteens rather than plastic bags or bottled water. And they can prove less effective, like some of the new cleaning products.
Click here to read the whole article. It’s a thought-provoking piece that balances out the pros and cons of green alternatives and even includes a quote from one of my favorite people: Ivette Melendez of WAGES (Women’s Action to Gain Economic Security) who says: “There’s the myth that to be clean it has to shine or smell or make a lot of bubbles.”

I’d love to hear about your experiences with low- and phosphate-free dish detergents in the comments section. Have you noticed a huge difference in the cleanliness of your dishes now that many big-name brands have retooled their once phosphate-heavy formulas? Have you found a particular eco-friendly brand that does just as good as job keeping your dishes shiny and spot-free? 

Via [New York Times]

MNN homepage photo: Jenny/Flickr

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

When green isn't good enough: The phosphate issue
In reaction to multi-state restrictions, dish detergent makers have done away with the 'magic' ingredient that gives dishes that spot-free sparkle: Phosphates.