Md. Dish Soap Bill Might Help Clean Bay

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 3, 2007

Maryland lawmakers are taking aim at a product in every kitchen that happens to be polluting the Chesapeake Bay: dish soap.

Washing dirty plates and silverware, it turns out, contributes to a dirty bay because of detergents that make the dishes sparkling clean. The soaps contain phosphorus, which gets dumped into the Bay and depletes oxygen vital to fish. Now, environmentally minded lawmakers want to all but eliminate phosphorus from dishwashing detergents in the state.

"This an opportunity for Marylanders to clean the Bay while they clean their dishes," Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), co-sponsor of bill with Del. James W. Hubbard (D-Prince George's), told the Senate environment committee at a hearing yesterday. "We can stop this without significant costs to our constituents."

But the soap industry says the cost could come in dishes that don't sparkle: Low-phosphorous detergents do not clean as well as their counterparts, representatives say.

The Maryland bill would limit the amount of phosphorus in dish soap to half a percent, down from the 7 percent allowed by current law. The Bay's phosphorus load, also made heavy by runoff from lawn and farm fertilizer, could decline by 3 percent, estimated Frosh, environmental advocates and officials with the O'Malley administration, which supports the measure.

Washington state, prompted by pollution in the Spokane River, voted last year to require soap companies to curtail phosphates.

If it takes effect next year, the Maryland legislation would take several products off of store shelves, but supporters said consumers would still be able to choose from a number of phosphorous-free soaps.

"I don't really think there's another side to it," Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler (D), another supporter, told the committee. He placed a green bottle of Seventh Generation detergent and a box of Ecover Natural dishwashing tablets on the edge of a table at the hearing to show two of the three niche brands of phosphorus-free detergents on the market.

Soap companies said at the hearing that the General Assembly could force their Maryland customers to live without the cleanest dishes. They said they've spent hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years in unsuccessful efforts to come up with good substitutes, said Dennis Griesing of the Washington-based Soap and Detergent Association.

Although the eco-alternatives run about the same price as mainstream detergents, he said, "They have a population of users that find their product acceptable."

Yet the industry, which bitterly fought a similar law limiting phosphorus for laundry detergent 22 years ago, says it is prepared to accept a similar fate for dish detergent. But soap industry officials urged the legislature to delay implementation until 2010 to allow time to remake their products.

That suggestion irritated some senators.

"Are people just going to go to the stream and wash their dishes there?" asked Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George's).

The industry also opposes another provision of the bill that would restrict phosphorus in commercial dish detergent.

Restaurants and hospitals use big machines that work faster and use hotter water than household machines -- and a product without phosphorus would definitely not clean the dishes properly, they said.

"We're in an industry where clean, sanitized dishes are very important to our customers," said Melvin Thompson of the Restaurant Association of Maryland.

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