Clean clothing, dirty river?

Danube Watch 2 2006

Clean clothing, dirty river?

You just washed three loads of clothing and hung it in the sun to dry. Family is thankful. You feel good and clean. Did you pollute?

Credit: Csagoly

Studies in Switzerland and the USA show the greatest benefits (70% to 90% reductions in phosphorus loads) to lakes and rivers resulted where a combination of reduced detergent phosphorus and improved wastewater treatment was implemented.

Phosphates, or compounds with phosphorus (P), are added to some detergents to improve washing effectiveness. They soften the water in your machine, make it bubblier and help dissolve cleaning agents. That’s good for your clothes, but bad for your river.

Excess volumes of nutrients, however, can cause massive algal blooms. Left unchecked, sub-surface life becomes deprived of oxygen and suffocates, killing fish, reducing biodiversity and reducing the value of many water uses.

Mismanagement of nutrients in the Danube River Basin (DRB) has led to severe ecological problems including the deterioration of groundwater resources and the eutrophication of rivers, lakes and the Black Sea. The upcoming DRB Management Plan, requested by the EU Water Framework Directive, will need to include measures to solve the Danube’s nutrient problems.

Treatment and P-free alternatives. To reduce phosphate pollution, there are two main options. The first is more and better sewage treatment. The second is making detergents ‘P-free’. The main alternatives to phosphates in detergents are called ‘zeolites’, which are neither toxic nor lead to eutrophication.

To date, Austria and Germany have virtually gone completely P-free. Slovenian use of detergents is about 75% P-free. Czech Republic P-free detergent use is about 50%. These four countries together account for about 28% of the total DRB population. Of the remaining DRB countries, only Hungary and Serbia and Montenegro use significant proportions of Pfree detergents (about 50%), together accounting for a further 25% of the DRB population. The remaining seven DRB countries use little or no P-free detergents and make up almost half the entire DRB population.

Costs and industry. “Zeolites have been shown to be a cost-effective alternative for P-based detergents and there is no evidence of higher costs to consumers,” says Helene Horth, an expert at WRc working as an independent consultant for the UNDP/GEF Danube Regional Project (DRP).

“It’s hard to say,” says Jaroslav Slunecko, a representative of a group of detergent producers in the DRB who are all members of the international Association for Soaps, Detergents and Maintenance Products (AISE), the official representative body for detergent and cleaning product industries in the EU. “It’s country and company dependent. Each company has a different supply chain and cost structure in each country. It’s important to look at how and from where ingredients are supplied. Local tax structures and transportation costs also need to be considered when determining costs and prices.” Each country also has consumers with different demands, he adds.

“Companies should be free to formulate detergents that fit best with a specific place’s consumer preferences, economic conditions and environmental situation,” says Slunecko. “The environment is one important factor, but not the only one.”

The success of going P-free. “Industry believes that no long-term solution to the problem of eutrophication will be possible without a clear commitment of stakeholders to implement waste water treatment plants and best management practices in agriculture fully. Industry will support all measures designed to reduce phosphate emissions into surface waters, either through sewage treatment plants or the marketing of phosphate-free products, provided proven cost-effective and environmentally sound alternatives are defined, yielding a sustainable resolution of eutrophication.”

According to recent investigations in the Czech Republic, the phosphorus from detergents creates 23% of total phosphorus discharged to municipal wastewaters, says Doubravka Nedvedova from the Czech Ministry of Environment’s Water Protection Department. This is why plants with more than 10,000 PE are equipped or will soon be equipped with phosphorus removal technology. “Considering that nutrients (phosphates and nitrogen) enter the water not only from municipal but also from agricultural sources, the measure (eliminating phosphates from detergents) is one of many others that we have to apply to remove nutrients from waters.”

Pushing the switch. In the DRB, two options exist for getting industry to switch to P-free production and sales — voluntary agreements or regulation through legislation. The Czech Republic started with a voluntary agreement with a group of detergent producers. Partial success was achieved with total phosphate content in detergents almost halved between 1994 and 2003. However, non-members to the agreement increased their market share resulting in increased phosphate levels in 2005, and the government reacted by enacting new legislation.

“The Czech lesson appears to apply to many former Central and Eastern European countries (CEE) in the Danube Basin,” says Horth. “It’s difficult to make voluntary agreements with industry work without legislative back-up. They prefer to wait for legislation.”

The goal of the DRP’s detergent project is to develop recommendations for reducing phosphorus in detergents. “To date, we have found many challenges to using voluntary agreements,” says Horth. “For example, without legislation, even if agreements can be made between national governments and industry, the fi eld is left wide open for others to produce or import P-detergents.”

A new EU Regulation on detergents entered into force October 8 2005. Its Article 16 says: “…by April 2007, the Commission shall evaluate, submit a report on and, where justifi ed, present a legislative proposal on the use of phosphates with a view to their gradual phase-out or restriction to specific applications”.

“Any EU decision should be based on science,” says Slunecko. “I can’t say whether the EU should enact legislation to ban P-based detergents or not. Let’s wait and see. Industry will respect the EC’s decision. We are committed to cooperating with local and national bodies and the ICPDR to find the best solutions.”

As for Horth: “We hope that the 2007 review will support a phase-out of detergent phosphates, as we now have the curious situation where several EU countries have contributed significantly to combating eutrophication by reducing the use of P-detergents, either through national legislation or voluntary agreements, while others have not. Another step in the right direction will be to make consumers more aware of the problem and choices available to them. NGOs can be a big help here.”

Paul Csagoly is a communications specialist for the UNDP/GEF Danube Regional Project, and a writer on European environmental issues since 1996.

 Next: Tisza Basin Cooperation