EU to ban phosphates in laundry detergents

The European Commission has presented on 4 November a proposal to ban the use of phosphates and to limit the content of other phosphorous containing compounds in laundry detergents. The draft Regulation, which does not affect detergents for automatic dishwashers or those used by professionals yet, aims to reduce the phosphates found in waste water and to improve water quality.

The draft Regulation to ban the presence of phosphates in laundry detergents aims at harmonising measures across EU Member States, given that some Member States already have national restrictions in place with divergent limit values while others rely on the voluntary action of detergent manufacturers.

In some regions measures taken by individual countries are not sufficient to maintain water quality at acceptable levels. This is the case of the Danube River and the Baltic Sea which included phosphates ban in the macro-region Strategy, estimated to have 16% and 24% respectively of their phosphates load stemming from detergents.

Cost-efficient alternatives to phosphates are available for laundry detergents, but in the case of detergents for automatic dishwashers or those used by professionals there are not technically and economically feasible alternatives available throughout the Union. For that reason, the Regulation would not affect them yet. The proposal foresees the need to re-assess the situation regarding automatic dishwasher detergents by 31 December 2014.

Some alternatives to phosphates also contain phosphorous, although in a different chemical form, which can potentially create environmental problems when used in higher concentrations. Consequently, the Regulation proposes a phosphorous content limit of 0.5 % of the total weight of the product in all laundry detergents on the EU market. This will apply as of 1st of January 2013, to allow detergent manufacturers to minimise the costs of modifying the composition of laundry detergents in a normal product life cycle.

Environmental damages caused by phosphates

When excessively discharged into water, phosphates, like nitrates, can raise the amount of nutrients to an unsustainable level, eventually causing algae to grow at the expense of other aquatic life. This phenomenon is known as 'eutrophication' or, more commonly, 'red tides' or 'green tides'. The main sources of discharge of phosphates into surface waters are agriculture and sewage with detergents coming in third position.

Phosphates are primarily used in detergents to ensure efficient cleaning in hard water. Phosphates originating from detergents and discharged into waste water have to be removed through costly chemical or biological processes at waste water treatment plants. Not all treatment plants in the EU are equipped with the necessary technology to carry this out.

The proposal would benefit not only waste water treatment plants, with reduced costs for phosphate removal, but also consumers who pay for waste water treatment, and ultimately the environment.