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How Laundry Detergent Works

Environmental Considerations with Laundry Detergent

Even though detergents do a tremendous job of getting rid of the dirt and grime in our fabrics, at what cost does this come? Considering the toxicities of their chemical ingredients and carbon cost of production, it's not surprising that some people have concerns about the impacts of laundry detergents on the environment.

Their carbon footprint alone is significant by many people's standards. Carbon footprints are an indicator of the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) produced while making, shipping and using a product. According to the Wall Street Journal, the carbon footprint of using UK detergent brand Tesco, varies from 1.3 pounds (0.6 kilograms) to 1.9 pounds (0.9 kilograms) per load, depending on the form of the detergent that's used. To put this in perspective, it is estimated that for every mile an average car travels, 1 pound (0.5 kilograms) of CO2 is emitted. Recall that American families on average do 300 loads of laundry per year. This means that the carbon footprint of laundry detergents for one year of laundry is approximately 480 pounds (218 kilograms) per year, or about 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms) per week. So, while this may not seem like a lot, especially if your car produces about 5 tons of CO2 per year, this number only reflects the laundry detergent. It does not factor in the extra energy requirements of running the washer and dryer [source: Wall Street Journal].

Now, add to that the toxic effects of the chemical components in detergents. According to the EPA, some of the major concerns about the chemical ingredients used in laundry detergents include the following:

  • Toxicity to aquatic organisms and algae
  • Persistence in the environment
  • Eutrophication of fresh water, particularly by phosphate-based detergents (now, phosphates have been replaced by zeolites which may be alleviating this problem)
  • Health problems in people, such as cancer [source: EPA]

Another concern relating to laundry detergent is that it can make the wash water acidic, and depending on where that water runs to, it could further impact the environment, having effects similar to acid rain. Read on to the next page to find some green alternatives to regular detergents.