Mr. & Mrs. Greg Griswold, of Rhinelander, Wisconsin, write:
Do the commercial green cleaning agents (dish soaps, spray cleaners, etc.) significantly affect the environment? Seems like it is just a marketing tool to charge 3-4 times the cost of the standard cleaning products.
Jon Fisher, senior conservation scientist with The Nature Conservancy's Center for Sustainability Science, replies:
The answer is that "green" (phosphate-free) soaps really do have a large impact on the environment.
The basic problem is that the phosphate in normal detergent mostly ends up in our rivers and lakes, where it causes excessive growth of algae. This is not only unattractive (it leads to stinky "green slime" scum) but also kills fish by drastically reducing available oxygen in the water, and makes human use of the water more difficult as more filtration is required.
There are two caveats, however. First is that in response to this problem some municipalities and states have passed laws limiting or banning phosphates in detergent (Maryland, Washington, Wisconsin), so you may already be covered. To be sure, look for the words "phosphate free" on the bottle, since some brands market themselves as "green" but still contain phosphorous.
The other caveat is that not all phosphate-free detergents are created equal. If you try one that is not doing a great job (or that’s too expensive), keep looking. I find most phosphate-free hand dish soap to work pretty well (common brands include Seventh Generation, Earth Friendly Products, Mrs. Meyer’s, and Ecover) but the only "green" dishwasher soap I’ve found effective is Ecover dishwashing tablets (their liquid and powdered dishwasher soap aren’t nearly as good). Make sure to add the recommended amount of detergent as adding extra can actually decrease performance. Most green laundry detergent works well except for really tough stains.
Other cleaning products (like glass & surface cleaning sprays) may or may not have much of an impact depending on the brand, but the green alternatives tend to be not only free of chemicals that are bad for the environment, but also free of harsh chemicals like ammonia and bleach that can pose a health risk to humans as well.
You can also make homemade "green" cleaning products (e.g. diluted vinegar as a spray, baking soda paste for tub cleaning) to save money, although I wouldn’t recommend that for detergent.
If you’re able to make the switch to phosphate-free cleaning products, I guarantee that your local fish (and fishermen) will be grateful!
Originally posted in December 2010.