guest posting by Jonathan A. Scott, for Clean Water Action
Will Industry's New Phosphate "Ban" Usher in a New Era of Pollution Prevention?
In 2010, should any company be allowed to produce a consumer product that is expressly designed to pollute?
Since the 1940s, the largest corporate purveyors of laundry detergents (and more recently automatic dishwasher detergents) have done just that by including phosphates as an integral part of their products. When used as directed, those products and that phosphate pollution go straight where intended: into appliances, down the drain and into our water.
The problem of phosphate pollution was already so bad in the early 1970s when Clean Water Action was getting its start that phosphates captured an entire chapter in organizational founder Dave Zwick's bestselling expose, Water Wasteland. The chapter was titled, Pollution for Sale: Detergents.
That is one reason why the news that the American Cleaning Council (a manufacturer's trade group representing most detergent companies, formerly known as the Soap and Detergent Association) will announce a voluntary ban on phosphates in dishwasher detergents effective July 1, 2010 is such a big deal.
More than four decades have passed since early Clean Water Action leaders and others first called for phosphates to be removed from laundry and dishwashing detergents. The fact that it took so long is a testament to the political power and insider lobbying prowess of the "big three" companies which dominated the industry for much of that time (Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive and Lever Brothers), fighting tooth and nail against phosphate bans at every level. That's a depressing thought.
But it is also a testament to the staying power and persistence of grassroots environmental organizing by Clean Water Action and others. This victory, even coming four decades later than hoped, shows promising new synergies evolving between environmental activism, newer companies and their leaders embracing a new environmental business ethic, and an increasingly enlightened consumer public willing to demand and purchase environmentally safer alternatives.
In the 1970 or 1980's it would have been unthinkable for almost any manufacturer of cleaning products for the consumer market to go on the record saying what Seventh Generation's Martin Wolf (aka Scienceman) has to offer in his company's June 29 news release on the ban: "If a negative environmental impact can be lessened or avoided, both industry and consumers have a responsibility to do so," said Martin Wolf, a leading authority on the environmental impact of household cleaning products. "This is a landmark moment, and as a company that's worked for years to make this desperately needed change a reality, we're celebrating a well-earned victory in the effort to build a healthier, cleaner world."
A mandatory federal ban passed decades ago would have done much to improve water quality over the years, but this new voluntary ban is still good news at a time when good news about the nation's water is all too scarce. For one thing, the ban means that more attention can now be paid to some of the bigger remaining problems, starting with phosphates and other nutrient pollution from industrial-intensive agriculture, over-fertilization of lawns and gardens, and outdated water systems that flush the pollution from farms and communities into our waterways.
The concept itself - the idea of going "upstream" to eliminate pollutants at the source, in this case, the phosphates in dishwasher detergents - is a commonsense approach whose time has surely come. In the face of today's most intractable water problems, "upstream" solutions that keep pollution out of the water in the first place, rather than waiting to act until after the contamination has already occurred may offer the most promising path forward.
Our situation today may be a bit more complicated and challenging than it was in the 1960s and 1970s, but the fundamental truth revealed in this exchange during a 1969 Congressional hearing on phosphates, as documented in Water Wasteland, endures. Here, U.S. Rep. Henry Reuss (D-WI) grills Assistant Secretary of the Interior Carl Klein on the issue:
Mr. Reuss: [Is it not a fact that] by and large the phosphate which shows up at sewage disposal plants comes from two main sources - household detergents and human waste?
Mr. Klein: Yes, sir.
Mr. Reuss: And household detergents are made by three major manufacturers?
Mr. Klein: That is correct.
Mr. Reuss: And human wastes are made by a couple hundred million manufacturers; is that correct?
Mr. Klein: Yes, sir.
Mr. Reuss: Well, doesn't it occur to you that it is easier to do something about three than about a couple hundred million?
In fact, competition from companies offering greener alternatives to the biggest players' phosphate laden products was an important factor in the eventual phosphate ban victory. But even though there are now many more than just the "three major manufacturers" the focus for solutions - whether regulatory, legislative or voluntary - can and should remain on the much smaller number of corporate manufacturing players on the "upstream" end of the spectrum.
Pollution from phosphates, an essential nutrient in minute quantities, can easily overwhelm waterways, causing algae blooms that decay and leave the water without oxygen and unable to sustain life. Clean Water Action has supported phosphate detergent bans starting before Congressional debates and hearings which led to the 1972 Clean Water Act. Clean Water Action played key roles in bans later adopted around the Chesapeake Bay, in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia.
As additional states passed mandatory bans and facing mounting pressure from environmental groups and consumers, the industry finally relented by phasing phosphates out of laundry detergents in the 1990's, while continuing to insist that the polluting ingredient remained essential for automatic dishwashing. Meanwhile emerging industry leaders, including Seventh Generation and others, advanced phosphate-free formulas and joined environmentalists in pressing for further action by states and other manufacturers. States that previously banned or improved regulation of phosphates in dishwasher detergent include Arkansas, Connecticut, Maryland, Minnesota, Montana, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Virginia, Vermont and Washington.