Phosphate ban proposed for laundry detergents

The government is considering banning phosphate-based laundry detergents to help meet the EU water framework Directive. The proposals would cost the detergent industry up to £4 million a year but could save the water sector two or three times that amount.

The Environment Department (DEFRA) is consulting on plans to phase out phosphate-based detergents in England. The move would bring the country into line with much of western Europe and help meet targets set by the EU water framework Directive.

Phosphate-free detergents have been available for 30 years. According to DEFRA they are as effective as those with phosphates. But they remain more expensive to produce and the industry has resisted a full-scale switch (ENDS Report 376, pp 29-31 ).

However, faced with the prospect of two thirds of the rivers and lakes in England failing to meet the water framework Directive’s "good ecological status" target due to phosphates, DEFRA has finally decided to act. Its preliminary cost analysis of the Directive, published last summer, showed that the phase-out of phosphate-based detergents would not be enough on its own but was a cost-effective option for reducing phosphate loading (ENDS Report 390, p 45 ).

The consultation, released alongside the water strategy (see p 37-38 ), proposes either a ban or the voluntary phase-out of phosphate-based products by 2015. There appears to be little difference between the two options other than the increased uncertainty associated with a voluntary withdrawal.

Most manufacturers already produce phosphate-free formulations based on zeolites but industry estimates suggest a total switch would cost up to £4 million a year. As DEFRA points out, this is a small slice of the industry’s £500-600 million annual profits.

On the other hand water firms have spent £950 million on phosphate-removal since the mid-90s, but most sewage works still do not have stripping systems. The designation last year of 24 more waters as "sensitive" to eutrophication under the EU urban wastewater treatment Directive will require a further £500 million of investment (ENDS Report 393, p 47 ).

The detergent sector has repeatedly claimed the growth of phosphate stripping will make restrictions on detergents unnecessary (ENDS Report 396, p 22 ). But DEFRA thinks the cuts in phosphate loading at existing treatment plants will save the water industry £2 million a year. Assuming similar savings at sewage works soon to add stripping, the overall figure will be £7-13 million a year.

The environmental effects of phasing out phosphate-based detergents would vary between water bodies but previously unpublished research from DEFRA puts the societal benefits of the water framework Directive at £0.65-1.7 billion a year. A "significant proportion" of these benefits are likely to be dependent on reductions in phosphate, DEFRA says.

The consultation includes detailed consideration of the percentage of phosphate in rivers and lakes that comes from domestic laundry detergents - a long and much-debated topic. Figures from a study by Atkins, included in the paper and due for publication later this year, suggest the proportion is around 11%. In 1989 it was thought to be 20-25%.

Domestic dishwasher detergents now account for about 4% of total inputs, but the biggest domestic contributors are urine and faeces - responsible for 64% of phosphate in domestic sewage and 39% of the phosphate added to rivers and lakes. A similar portion comes from agriculture and there are further uncalculated additions from combined sewer overflows and misconnected drains.

The European Commission has considered introducing its own restrictions (ENDS Report 389, p 49 ), but the consultation says this is now unlikely and the initiative will be left with member states.

DEFRA has ruled out restrictions on dishwasher detergents due to "technical difficulties" with phosphate-free formulations. But the consultation admits alternatives do exist and says they may be satisfactory in soft-water areas. It also promises to monitor the progress of dishwasher-detergent restrictions in Italy and Sweden.

The other phosphate-reduction measures under consideration include addressing agricultural diffuse pollution with grant schemes, action on misconnected sewers and measures to encourage better installation and maintenance of septic tanks.

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