How our laundry habits can affect aquatic ecosystems.
by Kay Baker on May 17, 2022
Salmon were prevalent in European rivers but huge levels of pollutants made these environments inhospitable. A gradual improvement in wastewater management improved the health of the river ecosystems and lead to the eventual return of Salmon. This is one example (of many!) that shows how our daily chores (e.g. doing the laundry) can have a significant impact on the environment and the ecosystems that sustain plant and animal species.
Water is discharged into the sewage treatment system, or, in rural areas, it goes through a septic tank and then back into the environment, carrying all those laundry chemicals with it. Many of these chemicals end up in our waterways. At Green Llama, we want our ingredients to biodegrade, be non-toxic to aquatic life, and not build up in our environment. Have you ever wondered what the effect of those chemicals might be on the environment?
Before laundry detergent, we simply used soap for washing clothes. World War II caused a low supply of oils and fats to produce soap, and detergents were created to solve the problem. Unfortunately, many of these ingredients aren’t good for our health or the environment. Laundry detergents can contain several ingredients that have harmful effects on the environment. Here are a few offenders:
Phosphate is a common ingredient added to laundry detergents to act as a water softener. It is estimated that 5% of all mined phosphorus goes to the laundry industry. Phosphate is important for plant growth. However, the release of excessive amounts of phosphate into wastewater - which discharges into rivers - contributes to increased growth of algae and aquatic plant life which leads to the loss of aquatic animal life, a process known as eutrophication.
Surfactants are an important ingredient for laundry detergents, helping to remove oily substances and preventing dirt from sticking to clothing. However, long-lived surfactants can enter our waterways and damage the mucous skins of fish, rendering them more susceptible to bacterial infections. Alkyl Benzene Sulfonate is one commonly used laundry surfactant that can accumulate in soils and be harmful to aquatic plants (1).
Plastic packaging, although this doesn’t go down the drain when you’re doing your laundry, too much plastic finds its way into our waterways, with an estimated 5.2 trillion pieces littering our oceans. Breakdown of the plastic via exposure to UV light from the sun leads to microplastic formation (plastics smaller than 5 mm). These plastics can enter the food chain causing health issues for aquatic organisms and have even been found in human tissues (2).
There are many environmentally conscious options for laundry detergents, and we think that ours works fantastically well according to feedback from our volunteer testers. We use non-toxic ingredients, it cleans great and will be affordable and comes with 100% home compostable packaging. We hope to launch this in the coming months, so be sure to check our website and your emails for updates.
Jianan Zhou, Zhonghua Wu, Dan Yu, Yijian Pang, Huan Cai, Yilin Liu. 2018. Toxicity of linear alkylbenzene sulfonate to aquatic plant Potamogeton perfoliatus L. Environ. Sci. Pollut. Res. Int. 25(32):32303-32311.
Heather A Leslie, Martin J M van Velzen, Sicco H Brandsma, A Dick Vethaak, Juan J Garcia-Vallejo, Marja H Lamoree (2002). Discovery and quantification of plastic particle pollution in human blood. Environ. Int. May;163:107199