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Clean Laundry … What About Water?

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Photo Credit: Some right reserved by Lucky B via Flickr.

Clean laundry, a given in the modern-day world, but do we consider the effect laundry washing has on water resources? As part of urban wastewater, laundry water eventually finds its way to natural water resources. But laundry water includes chemicals, unnaturally high percentages of chemicals allowing us to effectively wash and clean our laundry. The effect of such chemicals in water resources has been a global concern for decades. It is estimated that up to 30% of the levels of inorganic phosphates found in water bodies can be traced to the use of detergents.

Phosphates make up at least 50% of the chemical composition of detergents and this is causing major environmental impacts. Under natural conditions, phosphate is a nutrient essential for plant growth. The biological systems of aquatic environments include aquatic plants adapted to the aquatic environment. Algae are an example of a common aquatic plant. With phosphate being an essential nutrient for plant growth, it offers the same nutrient benefits to aquatic plants. However, with an overload of nutrients from unnatural origins such as detergents, water resources globally are increasingly plagued by anthropogenic eutrophication. Anthropogenic eutrophication is the enrichment of water resources by human induced nutrients in unnaturally high concentrations. Water resources affected by eutrophication are subject to various physical, chemical and biological disruptions. The first disruption to take place is algae and aquatic plant growth explosion (often described as algal blooms). The pure volume of sudden plant mass results in the water changing from clear to murky. A sharp drop in oxygen and light levels follows, causing a die back in not only the plant community, but also fish. The result of such nutrient overloading is a significant decrease in water quality and sustainability. Water bodies in this state require considerable time to recover to its initial natural state.

This is what is happening in countries and world regions where among other factors, the phosphate content of washing detergents are not officially controlled. Up to 50% of natural water resources in Asia, Europe and North America has already been affected by eutrophication. However, controlling the phosphate levels of wastewater before it reaches natural water bodies is a major challenge, as the pollutant source is diffuse and wide-spread. In some world regions including a number of US states and European countries, efforts to curb this problem include regulation of detergent composition with a ban or at least restriction of laundry detergent phosphate content. The European Union is considering a complete ban on phosphates in detergents across all member countries. Unfortunately, some countries including South Africa are yet to implement a form of controlling legislation. South Africa in particular requires an urgent ruling on the matter as the country is not only a water scarce country but also already utilizing up to 98% of its natural water resources.

In response to this phosphate impact on water resources, zero phosphate alternatives for detergents have been developed. However both suppliers and consumers are raising voices that this is bringing about a lower detergent quality. Yet, can we continue to afford the laundry luxury that potent chemical compositions are offering with water resource shortages and aquatic ecosystem degradation being an indisputable reality?


Authored by:
Word from the Savanna, a South African based freelance environmental reporting company.

Source: Water Research Commission of South Africa (2011)

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3 Comments on “Clean Laundry … What About Water?

  1. Pingback: Clean Laundry…What About Water? | Word from the Savanna

  2. Pingback: Wetlands: part of our quest to sustainability | Word from the Savanna

  3. When I originally commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now each time a
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