Which detergent is better for the environment - powder, liquid or sachets?

One Change: Pods are convenient, but they are not the environmentally-friendly option

The outer packaging of pods are made from a water-soluble polymer (polyvinyl alcohol) which is safe, though this polymer contains a toxic monomer called vinyl acetate, which can harm aquatic lifeforms and causes tumours in rats.

The outer packaging of pods are made from a water-soluble polymer (polyvinyl alcohol) which is safe, though this polymer contains a toxic monomer called vinyl acetate, which can harm aquatic lifeforms and causes tumours in rats.

 

Life is complex enough without having to vacillate over whether to buy laundry detergent as powder, liquid or sachets, and yet the aggregate results of our decisions can have major consequences. Powder is bulkier and costs more to transport, but its cardboard packaging is easier to recycle, or re-use as mulch on weeds. Liquid detergent uses more water, and its large plastic bottles are a burden for waste centres. They can be hard to measure out, leading to people using too much, which wastes resources and leaves residue on clothes and in the water that flows back to rivers.

Individual pods and sachets were developed as a way of extracting more money for the same product. They are convenient and eliminate the tendency to over-dose, but cannot be used neat to pre-treat stains, and the dosage cannot be adapted to suit the size and dirtiness of your laundry load. They are also a danger for children, and have led to thousands of poisonings, as children mistake them for sweets. The outer packaging is made from a water-soluble polymer (polyvinyl alcohol) which is safe, though this polymer can break down into a toxic monomer called vinyl acetate, which can harm aquatic lifeforms and causes tumours in rats. (In fact, all conventional detergents have a warning on them saying, “Harmful to aquatic life, with long lasting affects”). The hard plastic box that the sachets come in is seldom recyclable.

Making your own detergent requires you buying borax and washing soda from chemical companies, and without the potent microbial enzymes and surfactants in modern detergents that remove dirt with phenomenal efficiency, you’re likely to have to use a lot more of your homemade product, and will need to use warmer water.

The commercial brands now claim their products can achieve brilliantly clean laundry at 15°C. And, even washing at 30°C instead of 40°C can save enough energy to light nine rooms for a year. Persil claim to have cut carbon emissions by compacting their liquid and powder formulations, so that recommended dosage is now 25 per cent less, and packaging is cut by 40 per cent.

In light of the complexity of this issue, perhaps the best course of action is to try using soapnuts, which are the berries of the sapindus trees, rich in natural saponins. They may not be quite as effective as the commercial options, and will require somewhat warmer water, but at least they don’t leave chemical residues that linger on your skin, your clothes and the surrounding water system for even longer than the laundry-fresh smell on your sheets.

Alternatively, try an eco-detergent (like Ecover) which will be phosphate-free, biodegradable, and not tested on animals, and most likely in recyclable or recycled packaging. They will also be free of those lingering fragrances, which consist of a cocktail of slow-degrading volatile chemical compounds, many of which are regarded as toxic by the Environmental Protection Agency in the US. Environmentally-friendly detergents cost a little more, but it’s just nice to know you’re not causing the eutrophication of fresh water through phosphate residue, or poisoning aquatic organisms and algae.

One Change is a weekly column about the changes - big and small - that we can all make in our daily lives for the good of the planet.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.