Clean detergents

G Magazine

If the US can introduce a voluntary phosphate ban, what’s holding Australia back?

Pond scum

Credit: Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water

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Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the issue of blue-green algae in waterways was a hot environmental topic. Phosphate was identified as a contributor to the problem and as a result, US environment groups led a high-profile campaign to eliminate the ingredient from household cleaning products. Their campaign received a major boost when numerous states moved to formally limit or restrict laundry-detergent phosphates. The pressure on the industry was immense and by the mid-'90s, America's detergent companies had voluntarily phased out phosphates in all domestic formulations. It was a big win for the environment.

Australia had good reason to be concerned about the problem. In 1991, nearly 1,000 km of the Barwon-Darling River in NSW was affected by a huge algal bloom. At the time, observers likened it to "a long ribbon of pea soup". The impact wasn't just in the river system where large numbers of fish were killed. Tourism was affected and hundreds of sheep and cattle died. According to the CSIRO, the cause of the bloom was low-flow river conditions and high nutrient concentrations, particularly of total phosphorus.

When the US detergent industry banned phosphates in household laundry products, many campaigners expected the Australian industry to do the same. After all, they could simply switch to using the same proven formulations that the Americans were using. Sadly it wasn't to be. Despite Australia's ongoing river problems, far too many leading brands are still using phosphates.

There's an obvious question that needs to be asked here. If the US detergent industry can voluntarily ban phosphates in all their laundry products, why can't their counterparts in Australia do the same? Given the susceptibility of our waterways to excess nutrients and phosphates, why isn't our local detergent industry taking a more proactive stance?

The simple fact is that they are allowed to get away with it. Our governments have proven useless at regulating the detergent sector and the supermarkets have allowed the products to be sold. Indeed, since the early '90s Australia's supermarkets have continued to introduce countless new formulations that contain phosphates. At no point have they used their purchasing clout to totally remove such products from their shelves.

If Coles and Woolworths are the responsible corporate citizens they claim to be, they should take action on behalf of Australia's waterways. They should give the detergent companies a two-year timeline to phase out the use of phosphates in household laundry and dishwasher products. As it currently stands, Australian supermarkets are selling phosphate-based products that would not be allowed in many American supermarkets. This should not be allowed to continue. If Americans won't sell them, neither should we.

In July 2010, the US industry went one step further and voluntarily banned the use of phosphates in household dishwasher detergents. This move to make genuine improvements for the environment puts our local industry to shame.

Doing nothing means taking our waterways for granted. We already allow far too many nutrients to end up in our river systems. Cleaning products are not the only contributor to this problem, but they are a factor where we can take immediate action. That simple action is to eliminate phosphates from cleaning products. If the detergent industry and supermarkets can't do it voluntarily, then the Government ought to step in and introduce legislation.

The US cleaning product market is a $30 billion industry. If they can make such positive moves, there's no reason why their smaller Australian counterparts should not be doing the same.

Jon Dee is the founder of Do Something! (www.dosomething.net.au), an advocacy organisation whose campaigns include Ban the Bag, Cut Paper, Be Foodwise and Go Tap!