Maryland Takes Step To Clean Up Detergent

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 23, 2007

The dish soap is going green.

Marylanders will clean their dishes with detergent that's all but free of pollution-causing phosphorus under legislation approved by the House of Delegates yesterday, following passage last week in the Senate. Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) will sign the bill, his spokesman said, apparently agreeing with lawmakers that his constituents don't need to foul the Chesapeake Bay while they clean their dishes.

But a question lingers for doyennes of the kitchen: If the workhorse ingredient in Cascade, Palmolive, Electrosol and 10 or so other brands of automatic dish detergent disappears from supermarket shelves, will the plates get as clean?

That depends on whom you believe -- and when detergent companies must remove all but half a percent of phosphorus from their soap, down from the 7 percent that current law allows. The bill's Senate version requires detergent to be phosphate-free by 2009, and the House agreed to give the industry another year. A conference committee will hash out the effective date in the coming weeks.

Maryland is the second state, after Washington, to require phosphate-free dish detergent, and similar measures are pending in four other states. The industry bitterly fought Maryland's law limiting phosphorus in laundry detergent 22 years ago and succeeding in exempting dishwashing detergent. But a lot of people forgot that one of the bay's three worst pollutants was still legal in a product in every kitchen.

"It just kind of lay there for 22 years," Del. James W. Hubbard (D-Prince George's), the bill's House sponsor, said yesterday. "Everybody assumed this had already been done."

The industry is lobbying for more time to reformulate a 60-year-old product that uses phosphorus to keep minerals from interfering with the cleaning process and prevent food particles from depositing again on dishes. A new niche market of low-phosphorus detergents sells three products in Maryland. But the old guard says the newcomers don't get the dishes as clean. And they cost up to 20 percent more.

"The product is not going to be any good if you put it out there and consumers aren't happy with it," said Brian Sansoni, vice president of communications for the Washington-based Soap and Detergent Association, which represents 110 cleaning-product manufacturers. "Once you replace a major ingredient in a product, it completely changes all the ingredients."

As the bill moved through the legislature, Procter & Gamble, the maker of Cascade, testified that the company had spent millions to develop good substitutes for phosphorus, only to fail.

But environmental advocates say the big players in the $634 million industry are chafing at competition from Seventh Generation, Ecover and other companies that substitute sodium citrate for phosphorus.

"There's no noticeable difference" with premium brands, said Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler (D), who testified in favor of the bill. Yesterday, he said that he and his wife have been late adopters of eco-brands, opting for years for Cascade "or whatever was on sale." He brought home the samples of Seventh Generation and Ecover Natural he used to make his case with lawmakers and tried them. "It seems almost like a comical issue: You're talking about dish detergent," Gansler said. "But it really will have an impact."

Sort of.

Phosphorus is one of the top pollutants in the bay, along with nitrogen and sediment. Environmental advocates say it's a forgotten culprit because it's most detrimental in freshwater rivers and lakes, where it encourages oxygen-depleting algae blooms. The bay ranges in salinity, mixing fresh and saltwater. The phosphorus load could go down 3 percent without detergent's contribution, about 30,000 pounds a year, environmentalists estimate. To meet the state's water-quality goals by 2010, the bay must shed 1 million pounds of phosphorus.

"Admittedly, this is a small piece of that," said Pat Stuntz, assistant director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission. But she noted another benefit of phosphate-free detergent: less phosphorus to clean up at wastewater treatment plants, another focus of saving the bay.

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