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Mark your calendar and remember the date. Something big is going to happen, something we've been waiting for and working toward for a very long time:
The end of phosphates in automatic dishwasher detergents, the last cleaning product refuge of these water pollutants.
On July 1, a voluntary ban on phosphates in household dishwasher detergents in the U.S. will be implemented by many members of the American Cleaning Institute (ACI, formerly the Soap and Detergent Association), a manufacturer trade group that represents most major companies in the cleaning products industry.
It's a landmark moment, indeed. We have made phosphate-free products for years and proven that they work. And we’ve worked for years to make this desperately needed change an industry reality. As such, we’re celebrating a well-earned victory in the effort to build a cleaner, healthier world.
What's wrong with phosphates?
Phosphates are not your typical hazardous pollutant. They don't cause bodily harm. In fact, phosphates are essential to life. But when we as a population rinse large quantities of phosphates down our drains by using a phosphate-containing automatic dishwasher detergent, harmful negative and cumulative environmental effects happen.
Phosphates travel to local lakes, ponds, rivers and streams where they become nutrients for algae. In response to this flood of "food," the algae begin feasting and reproducing, and an algae bloom can result. When the algae overdo it, they use up available food, and die out. When that happens, bacteria move in to consume their remains. Now it's the bacteria's turn to gorge on an abundance of food, and as they do, they use up the oxygen in the water. What comes next are dead zones, fish kills, and lifeless waters that can eventually fill in and disappear completely.
No more freshwater. No more swimming. No more fishing. No more beauty.
Technically, the process is called eutrophication, but we just call it unnecessary because as we’ve shown for years, you don’t need this pollution and the damage it does to get your dishes clean.
Why are phosphates used?
Phosphates are added to dishwasher detergents to soften water so a formula’s surfactant cleaning agents can work better. Without this softening, minerals present in water supplies would combine with these surfactants to create a greasy gray soap scum that clogs dishwashers and makes dishes dirtier. But other materials can soften water, too. They're not as cheap to use as phosphates, but as our own phosphate-free formula demonstrates, they can work just as well when properly formulated.
Moving toward a solution
For a decade, we've been explaining this to state legislatures considering a ban on phosphates in dishwasher detergents. We’ve provided hours of expert testimony and handed out samples of our own no-phosphate formula as proof it can be done. We’ve also worked with non-profit groups working to clean up and prevent pollution such as our friends at Clean Water Action, and as a member of the ACI, we've spent years urging the change at association meetings. Anywhere we could, we’ve taken the lead to ban phosphates.
And now that work has finally paid off. The industry has seen the light at last, and on July, 1, the ban we've fought so long and so hard for begins. Manufacturers are reformulating their dish detergents to be phosphate-free. Only traces of phosphates naturally found in other mineral ingredients will remain (up to a maximum limit of 0.5%). And while existing stocks of phosphate-based formulas will take a while to clear off store shelves, by this time next year, the country's dishwashers will no longer be feeding deadly algae blooms.
When combined with the ban on phosphates in laundry formulas of the 1990s and legislation in 16 states (and counting) that legally mandate their exclusion from dishwasher detergents, we’re a step closer to being a phosphate pollution-free nation. There are still major sources of phosphates we have to deal with (lawn chemicals, farm runoff and human waste are the big ones), and plenty of other serious water pollutants remain in household products, but make no mistake—this is a huge victory that deserves a big celebration.
It's also a great demonstration of the power that we all have when we unite to tackle our challenges and create a new vision of what's possible. The new phosphate ban is a direct result of ordinary people working with non-profits working with companies like ours working with governments. Nobody did this alone. But we all did it together.
That, too, is something to celebrate. So join us on July 1 in raising a (sparkling non-phosphate-cleaned) glass of pure water to a hard-fought win and a world that just got that much cleaner. Both prove we can do it when we try. And both show it's well worth it when we do.