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

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

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.