Broad support for ban on phosphate detergents

The water industry, its regulators and environmental groups all support a ban on phosphate-based laundry detergents. Although manufacturers believe a ban would be disproportionate, they would prefer statutory restrictions to a voluntary agreement.

The Environment Department (DEFRA) has published its analysis of responses to a consultation on controls on phosphates in laundry detergents released earlier this year.1 The consultation was launched with the government’s water strategy in February (ENDS Report 397, pp 38-39 ). It considered a ban or voluntary restrictions on phosphates in formulations, reducing loads discharged to waters via sewers and septic tanks.

Phosphate is a plant nutrient and a major cause of eutrophication, or over-enrichment, of fresh waters. Although water companies have been fitting phosphate stripping at sewage works, further reductions in phosphate levels will be needed to meet water framework Directive quality targets.

The consultation received 24 responses from detergent manufacturers, the water industry, NGOs and regulators.

Broadly, manufacturers held that the problem was insignificant and did not justify controls, while the water industry, NGOs and regulators all supported a ban. But even manufacturers supported a ban over voluntary restrictions, which they feared might be open to abuse.

Manufacturers said the estimated costs to their businesses of reformulating products had been underestimated - putting them at £10-15 million with a recurring annual cost of £5-8 million. They also argued the potential cost savings to water firms had been over-played, with the costs of phosphate stripping at sewage works determined more by the permitted level in effluent than by the load in incoming wastewater.

Water companies and regulators felt a ban would deliver cost savings which would increase as more phosphate stripping is installed. They argued the ban would restore a level playing field for customers already using phosphate-free products, who currently pay for phosphate stripping through water bills.

The proportion of phosphate in sewage attributable to laundry detergents is a key statistic which affects estimates of the savings likely to be realised by a ban. Detergent makers claim 10% while the water industry has claimed 18%. The consultation document used a figure of 13.5%.

But research by a coalition of the water industry and environmental regulators does not support detergent makers’ figures. It suggests manufacturers have underestimated the load attributable to laundry detergents and inflated that attributable to dishwasher products.

The point is important because a ban on phosphate dishwasher products is unlikely at present because phosphate-free alternatives are poorly developed. Attributing some of the phosphate load to these products might reduce regulatory pressure on laundry products where alternatives are widely available.

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