Detergents are a part of every household cleaning cupboard – but what is their impact on the environment and our health?
Laundry or dishwashing detergents, just like conventional shampoos and soaps, contain surfactants. The reason why detergents are so frequently used for cleaning is their ability to connect water and oil, making them effective against oily stains and grease.
Conventional vs. green detergents
Detergents can be divided into two main categories: conventional ones derived from petrochemicals and natural detergents from plant-based materials. Because of that, conventional laundry detergents aren’t biodegradable, pollute the water cycle and can cause a harsh reaction on sensitive skin.
A natural, green detergent is quite similar to a natural soap, made from plant-based ingredients. It does the same thing as conventional detergents but without the negative environmental and health benefits.
Environmental impact of detergents
Phosphates are banned from being used in laundry detergents across the EU – however, they can still be used in dishwashing detergents.
These chemicals, besides being used in detergents, are also frequently used as synthetic fertilizers. Once they make their way into the water cycle, they cause excessive growth of algae, violating the natural balance of the ecosystems. The algae invasively consume most of the resources in the area, leaving other species deprived.
We’ve mentioned surfactants before – they’re what allows conventional detergents to connect water with oil. However, when they’re released into the water cycle, they can be damaging, especially to fish. Surfactants pile over a protective layer of the fish’s skin and block their gills, making the fish much more vulnerable to bacteria and diseases and lowering its oxygen absorption.
It’s not just the contents of detergents that make them environmentally harmful – they also usually come in plastic packaging polluting our oceans and piling up in landfills.
Did you know that only 9% of all plastic ever made was recycled? There are many factors contributing to this low recycling rate, but the bottom line is that recycling isn’t the one solution to plastic pollution. If we hope to cope with the environmental impact of plastic, we need to reduce our consumption – one way to do so is buying detergents in more eco-friendly packaging.
Beware of greenwashing
While many laundry detergents labelled as sustainable do actually have the environmental performance they promise on the label, unfortunately, there are some brands hoping to present their products as sustainable without doing any of the work. This shady marketing tactic called greenwashing (labelling the product as sustainable when, in reality, it’s not) is one you should watch out for in laundry detergents.
Even a detergent made from petrochemicals can carry a green label, as words like ‘green’ or ‘natural’ don’t have any set definitions manufacturers have to abide by. The best way to avoid this is to always check the ingredient list