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News|31 Jul, 2008

Why won’t all manufacturers of detergents phase out phosphates to save the Baltic Sea?

Several manufacturers of laundry and dishwasher detergents in countries around the Baltic Sea insist on using polluting phosphates in their products, despite the fact that there are alternatives available. Some companies sell phosphate-free products in countries with stricter regulations, while they refuse to sell the same alternatives in others.

Some companies sell phosphate-free products in countries with stricter regulations, while they refuse to sell the same alternatives in others. Procter & Gamble and Henkel are the only major international manufacturers that plan to phase out the use of phosphates in their laundry detergents by 2009. Phosphates are a major contributor to eutrophication of the Baltic Sea.

Earlier this year, WWF and partner organizations around the Baltic Sea contacted manufacturers of detergents and asked for a voluntary ban on phosphates in their products. After some months of dialogue, a number of companies have now agreed to switch to phosphate-free alternatives for their laundry detergents.

“We congratulate the leadership shown by some companies, and we hope that the rest will follow now”, says Vicki Lee Wallgren, Programme Manager at WWF’s Baltic Ecoregion Programme. “The fact that many manufacturers sell phosphate-free alternatives in some Baltic Sea states while continuing to sell phosphate-containing products in others is very frustrating. Considering the positive impacts a reduction of phosphates would have on the Baltic Sea, we think that all manufacturers should switch to phosphate-free alternatives now,” continues Vicki Lee Wallgren. “This is clearly a case of double standards. We will continue to negotiate with these manufacturers and we aim for a total phase-out of phosphates, preferably this year.”

Political negotiations on a phosphate ban have been ongoing for years. As late as November last year, when the Baltic Sea Action Plan was signed with great fanfare, an agreement to stop using phosphates was changed in the last minute. According to the final agreement, countries will only have to present a timetable for a phase-out at a meeting in 2010.

“It is amazing how governments have been debating this issue for years and years without coming to a decision”, says Vicki Lee Wallgren. “We are very happy that some companies are willing to take their responsibility when politicians are not.”

Some of the countries already have a ban on phosphates in detergents. Germany phased out phosphates in laundry detergents in 1984. Sweden recently implemented a ban on phosphates in laundry detergents and is now considering a ban also in dishwasher detergents. A recent study from the Swedish Chemical Inspectorate confirms that there are several alternatives to the use of phosphates in dishwasher detergents and recommends a ban.

A recent report commissioned by HELCOM estimated the total reduction of phosphorus due to a potential ban on detergents containing phosphates to somewhere between 3,000 and 9,000 tons/year, or up to 24 % of the total phosphorus load.

”To replace phosphates in detergents is the easiest and most cost-efficient way of improving the status of the Baltic Sea”, says Vicki Lee Wallgren. “The cost of banning phosphates in laundry and dishwater detergents has been shown to be negligible, while the positive effect in the Baltic Sea would be dramatic.”

The excess loads of phosphates and other nutrients are causing the environmental problem known as eutrophication in the Baltic Sea. Eutrophication is a condition in aquatic ecosystems where high nutrient concentrations stimulate the growth of algae which leads to imbalanced functioning of the system, such as:

  • intense algal blooms, including some species that produce toxins harmful to animals and humans;
  • production of excess organic matter causing decreased water transparency;
  • oxygen depletion with resulting dead zones at the sea bottoms; and
  • death of living organisms, including fish.

WWF and partner organizations are committed to reducing eutrophication of the Baltic Sea down to sustainable levels and call on all manufacturers of detergents to sign on to the voluntary phosphates ban.

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Phosphates are salts and esters of phosphoric acid, i.e. a group of chemical compounds where phosphorus is one component of the molecule. Phosphates are used as builders in laundry and dishwashing detergents. They effectively dissolve dirt and soften the water by reducing the amount of metal ions. There are now several alternatives to phosphates in detergents on the consumer market, including zeolites, citrates and polycarboxylates. Experience has shown that a transition to phosphate free detergents is possible and that technical problems for the manufacturers can easily be solved given a short transition period.

The maximum allowed level in the Swedish ban for laundry detergents is 0.2% phosphorus (or 0.8% phosphates). The proposal (from the Swedish Chemical Inspectorate) for dishwasher detergents is a limit of 0.5% phosphorus (or 2.0% phosphates), but the government has not announced a ban yet.

The effects of a phosphate ban would be greatest in places where cities are not connected to modern waste water treatment plants (usually with around 90% phosphorus reduction). However, also in countries with well developed waste water treatment facilities, there are many households, including summer houses and other scattered dwellings that are not connected to these plants.

HELCOM has established that if the use of phosphates in detergents would stop completely (and assuming that this would reduce inputs with 0.6kg phosphorus/person/year), it would result in:

  • 24% total reduction of phosphorus inputs to the Baltic Sea, which is approximately 9000 tonnes.
  • Substantial reduction in primary production and cyanobacterial (so called blue-green algae) blooms in the Bothnian Sea, and in the Gulfs of Finland and Riga.
  • For the Baltic proper there will be a reduction in the extension of hypoxic (oxygen-free, dead) bottoms and a substantial reduction in cyanobacterial blooms.

The complete Helcom report, “Towards a Baltic Sea Unaffected by Eutrophication” is available at

International companies that have agreed not to use phosphates in their laundry detergents from 2009:

  • Procter & Gamble (in Estonia, Finland, German, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Sweden)
  • Henkel (throughout the Baltic region)

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