The European Commission is today proposing to ban the use of phosphates and phosphorous compounds in laundry detergents.
Phosphates from detergents are one of the main sources of ‘red tides’ and ‘green tides’ of algae bloom and seriously affect water quality, both in rivers and at sea. Getting rid of phosphates is difficult – they have to be removed in waste-water treatment plants at huge expense.
An EU Regulation would mark the end of voluntary or ineffective measures by some countries, with neighbouring countries having to suffer the consequences.
European Commission Vice-President Antonio Tajani, Commissioner for Industry and Entrepreneurship said: ‘Our proposal to ban phosphates in laundry detergents will give European citizens better water quality in their lakes, rivers and marine waters while keeping European companies at the forefront of this sector. The Commission will keep under review industry’s progress in the development of viable alternatives for automatic dishwasher detergents through innovation.’
The draft Regulation does not affect detergents for automatic dishwashers or those used by professionals as technically and economically feasible alternatives are not yet available throughout the EU.
However, Member States can regulate the phosphate content of these detergents in specific circumstances.
Eutrophication of European waters
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.