How Green is your Detergent?
Reprinted with permission from VOICE
The Voluntary Organisation in the Interest of Consumers Education (VOICE) recently completed a Detergent Test Programme for 14 Indian brands, with the aim of helping the Indian consumer pick the product they need at a price they can afford. The testing process also included parameters for eco-friendliness, based on biodegradibility and phosphate content. Give below are a summary of their findings.
Detergents, used by almost every urban household, have the distinction of being one of the mostsuccessful income generating products for the companies who manufacture them. Their penetration into rural areas is also increasing at an accelerated pace.
The Indian consumer organisation, VOICE, conducted a nation-wide survey on leading brands, ranging in price from Rs 16/kg to Rs 130/kg, and followed it up by testing 14 of them. The tests conducted included parameters for performance and eco-friendliness.
Summary of the test results
surprisingly, the test results showed that the more expensive brands
were better at isolating dirt from clothes. Some of the cheaper brands
performed poorly in this regard. Click
here for the chart.
Alkalinity: Alkalines like Sodium Carbonate (soda ash) and Sodium Borate are commonly added to detergents to neutralise the acid constituents of dirt and soil, and promote better cleaning. Anti-corrosive agents, like Sodium Silicate, are sometimes added to prevent washing machine corrosion. If the volume of alkalines added is above a certain limit (10 ml.), it may harm clothes by resulting in colour fading. In seven out of 14 brands tested, it was ABOVE the desirable limit. Click here for the chart.
Chemical damage to fibre during washing and Colour fading: Chemical substances in all of the 14 brands tested were found to be harmless to cloth fibre. No colour fading was witnessed. 10 of the 14 brands reached the 'Very Good' mark in this test parameter.
Biodegradibility: The first criterion, and one that environmentalists consider the most important, to ascertain eco-friendliness of any detergent, is the biodegradability of its ingredients. Biodegradability is the ability of a substance to be readily broken down into carbon dioxide, by bacteria present in the soil. According to India Standard (IS:13933 - 1995), the material giving a result of greater than 60 percent of field carbon dioxide within 28 days is regarded as readily biodegradable. By this standard, all the detergent powders tested were "Readily and Ultimately Biodegradable."
Labelling Standards for Detergents
Hundreds of thousands of tonnes of detergents with a value of billions of rupees are used annually in India. The production, use and disposal of such a large amount of chemicals is bound to have an adverse impact on the environment. Some of these impacts include pollution of water sources, depletion of natural resources, concentration of heavy metals, the localised effects of chemical ingredients on biodiversity and human life, toxicity to animals and increasing amounts of packaging waste.
The detergent market, dominated as it is by big brands like Proctor and Gamble and Lakes brothers (who between them, control almost 90% of the sales in urban areas), subverts information vital for environmental protection, misguides the consumer about the real choices available in the market, and uses manipulative marketing strategies that push out smaller and perhaps less polluting detergents.
But Indian consumers have proved extremely shrewd, cost-conscious and adaptable, and have always mixed and matched market products according to their individual needs. They generally soak highly soiled or stained clothes in detergent overnight, and use coarser detergents to wash cleaning cloths. They circumvent water shortages by alternating machine wash with hand wash. In the absence of superior-quality detergents for finer clothing, the traditional alternative, reetha, is often used. In fact, reetha is so fine a washing agent and also eco-friendly, that Indian women have traditionally used it as a herbal shampoo as well.
Even the" greenest" detergent will have some impact on the environment. So detergent use can never be a totally non-polluting activity. However, concerned and informed consumers can minimise the impact of their use of detergents on the environment. The basic problem relates to the quantity collectively used by consumers.
Once used, detergents find their way into water bodies, where they can cause problems if they persist for too long, leading to accumulation of potentially toxic or otherwise harmful substances. The manufacture, distribution, use and disposal of detergents (and their packaging materials) are key points at which environmental impact may occur. The least polluting - or "greenest" - detergent would minimise and/or remove the most wasteful processes and toxic ingredients throughout its lifecycle.
"green" detergent should ideally contain only the lowest
required quantity of essential ingredients. Non-essential additives,
like perfume, colour and brightening agents should be omitted. Ingredients
like bleach add to the environmental burden and should be used sparingly,
if at all. The ingredients should be non-toxic, readily biodegradable
and be easily eliminated by sewage treatment. Packaging should be
kept to a minimum, and should ideally consist of recycled content,
recyclable or biodegradable materials. Green detergents would also
provide complete information on the label, that would help consumers
make an informed choice.
article was written and compiled by the VOICE Editorial and Technical
Team , for the March-April 2001 issue of CONSUMER VOICE, the magazine
of the consumer organisation, Voluntary
Organisation in the Interest of Consumers Education (VOICE).
The VOICE Detergent Test Programme was supported by the Union Ministry for Environment and Forests and Consumenten Bond - Holland.
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