Store shelves are lined with bottles and boxes of laundry detergents shouting "Green", "Organic", "Natural". But are they really better for the environment?
Fortunately, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a system to let us know which products live up to their claims. The agency asks manufacturers to provide a list of ingredients. If the company is using the safest chemical for each type of ingredient, they earn the a special designation. If they’re not, the EPA encourages them to reformulate. The Design for the Environment Seal is awarded to laundry detergents that meet EPA requirements as both good for business and the environment.
Problem ingredients in laundry detergents are phosphates and some surfactants, mainly nonylphenol ethoxylates. Phosphates were banned from United States-produced laundry detergents in the 1970s so they are not a severe problem. Surfactants, which help soil to float away from garments, form a micelle which surrounds the piece of dirt and carries it away. The micelle are toxic to fish because they get into the fish gills and impairs their ability to get oxygen from the water.
Even knowing which chemical compounds to avoid can be difficult because they are seldom listed on labels. That's where the Design for the Environment logo becomes extremely helpful. You know that you're buying the best eco-friendly product.
The EPA offers a list of safe products on its Web site. You'll see that only a few brands are listed. This does not mean that all others are "bad". Applying for certification is currently voluntary. As more manufacturers reformulate a safer cleaning product and performance testing, additional detergents will receive the designation.
To read more about environmentally friendly laundry products and how to reduce your energy footprint in the laundry room, visit About.com's Green Laundry category.
Specific questions? Just ask here.