Soap-maker helps to clean up water

Washdays are contaminating our environment, a Water Research Council report has found. But chemical giant Unilever, which controls 80% of the washing powder market, has taken a big step to improve the situation.

The council report found that phosphates in detergents are polluting the country’s waterways and contributing to the clogging up of dams such as the Hartbeespoort with poisonous blue-green algae, which kills other life.

The finding comes against the background of a study by water-quality scientist Bill Harding that links the algae to motor neurone disease.

Phosphates’ role in washing powders is to “soften” the water to facilitate the washing of clothes.

Detergent manufacturers are replacing the phosphates with zeolites and salts, but consumers often complain because they leave a residue on clothing. The council cited Unilever as saying that, based on international trends, it was preparing to switch to zero-phosphate detergents. Once the decision was taken to implement the switch adapting its production processes would take between three and five years. But the company surprised SABC environmental programme 50/50 last week when it said that its washing powders were now entirely phosphate free.

Unilever manufactures well-known brands such as Skip, Surf, Sunlight and Omo. A visit to a Johannesburg supermarket showed that most of these brands still had phosphates listed as a component of their washing-powder formulae and there is nothing on Unilever’s website to indicate a policy change.

But 50/50 invited the Mail & Guardian to observe the testing of Unilever washing powders by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and all the products were indeed shown to be free of phosphates.

Asked why the eradication of phosphates had been kept secret Ross Plumbley, vice-president of research and development at Unilever in Durban, told 50/50 that South African consumers did not choose products based on environmental concerns. “We typically had between 16% and 22% [phosphates] in our formulations. We reduced this in all formulations to 2% in October 2010 and then finally removed it altogether at the end of the year.”

Plumbley said the company had not publicised the initiative because, although it was a positive step in reducing the phosphate load in the environment, “it will not solve the significant challenges South Africa is ­facing with regard to water quality, availability, or the issue of eutrophication, which is complex and challenging.”

Eutrophication is the creation of a nutrient-rich habitat for blue-green algae. Water pollution by phosphates leads to the eutrophication of lakes and streams and is a huge problem worldwide.

In normal circumstances waste-water treatment plants remove phosphates before they enter the river system, but a large percentage of South Africa’s plants are not functioning properly.

The council report found disturbing amounts of phosphate in the dams monitored. “There can be little argument concerning the impact phosphates have on the water resources in South Africa,” the report said, adding that the removal of such chemicals from detergents would reduce the burden on treatment plants and enable them to function better. “The indications are that as much as 35% of dam [phosphate] loading could be eliminated through the removal of detergent phosphorus, resulting in an estimated reduction in algal growth of up to 30%.”

Both the European Union and Australia have passed legislation banning phosphates in products from 2013.

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