You may have seen something on the news about Spokane, Washington where there is now a ban on dishwasher detergent made with phosphates. While this may seem to be an isolated case, there are actually several states (including the rest of the state of Washington) that will make dishwashing soap made with phosphates above a very small level illegal in 2010.
What is phosphate anyway and why is it used in dish washing soap? Phosphate is an inorganic chemical that is a combination of salt and phosphoric acid. Because it can clean things like hard water stains, and grease, phosphates are used in all kinds of things including dish washing soap.
Why all the fuss? Phosphate is a problem when it finds its way to freshwater rivers and lakes. The phosphate encouraged the growth of algae which depletes the oxygen in these rivers and lakes, killing off fish and other wildlife.
While there are green alternatives out there, deleting the phosphates from the dish washing soap can leave one unsatisfied with the resulting product-and a lot of dirty dishes. Plus some of these green alternatives are pricier than their cheaper phosphorous counterparts. This has caused people to travel outside their state to obtain contraband detergent from other states-which, of course, defeats the purpose of the bank in the first place.
What should you look for in a green dish washing soap? Are there green products that work as well? While there is no direct substitute for phosphorous, but there are other substances that can be used. How well they will work depends on a number of factors, perhaps the most important being the hardness of the water used for cleaning.
One ingredient that be used is a surfactants. Surfactants are usually biodegradable and are used to provide cleaning power and increase the ability of the water to separate the soil from the dish. Anionic surfactants work well as detergents, but can be less than effective in hard water. Amphoteric surfactants are used for their foaming power and can often be found with anionic surfactants. There are other substitutes for phosphates, but these can be even more dangerous than the phosphates. They include nitrilotriacatic acid (NTA) and caustic alkaline chemicals (which are particularly dangerous when ingested-as sometimes happens with children).
It may take some trial and error to come up with the phosphate substitute that works best in your water. It is unlikely that the ban on phosphates is going away, so it is better to start exploring the options now. In the meantime, the soap manufacturers continue work on the perfect phosphate substitute, but there are some excellent alternatives out there.