South Africa: Soap-maker Unilever switched to zero-phosphate detergents

Chemical giant Unilever, which controls 80% of the washing powder market, usually sold in the past detergents whose formulations typically had between 16% and 22% phosphates. The Water Research Council found that washdays were contaminating the South African environment and published a report that phosphates in detergents were 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. In October 2010 the company reduced the phosphates in all formulations to 2% and then finally removed it altogether at the end of the year.

Scientifically there is no absolute consensus on the issue, for example a study by water-quality scientist Bill Harding links the algae to motor neurone disease. Phosphates’ role in washing powders is to “soften” the water to facilitate the washing of clothes.

Unilever revealed the new policy just now, because they perceived that the South African consumers did not choose products based on environmental concerns. The testing of their washing powders by the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and all the products were indeed shown to be free of phosphates. Phosphates were replaced with zeolites and salts, but consumers often complained claiming they leave a residue on clothing. Ross Plumbley, vice-president of research and development at Unilever in Durban, told 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.”

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