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Sanjida O'Connell

Dr Sanjida O'Connell is a writer and a TV presenter. Sanjida writes about science and green issues. Her latest novel, The Naked Name of Love, was published by John Murray in March. Her latest TV series was on BBC 2: Nature's Top 40, and was a guide to our top British wildlife spectacles. Find more details about Sanjida's work at her website, sanjida.co.uk

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Eco Chic: How damaging is your detergent?

Posted by Sanjida O'Connell
  • Monday, 20 July 2009 at 09:16 am

Believe it or not, the majority of the damage your clothes do the environment is not when they’re being made but when you get hold of them. On average, a typical garment is washed twenty times and this uses six times as much energy as it did to make it in the first place. A T-shirt, for example, if washed at 60°C, tumble dried and ironed, will lead to the release of 4kg of C0² - the equivalent of flying for 17 miles. If you forgo tumble drying and don’t iron, you can cut the carbon emissions and energy consumption of your laundry by half (I hang up my tops and dresses as soon as they come out of the wash to try and minimise ironing). And as we know, washing your clothes in an A rated machine and reducing the temperature helps massively (your energy consumption is reduced by 10% for every 10oC reduction in temperature). So reducing the temperature, reducing the number of times you wash your clothes, forgoing tumble drying and cutting back on ironing will be better for the environment - but what damage is your detergent doing?

 

It’s really hard to find out exactly what’s in your laundry detergent – manufacturers aren’t obliged to give more than a cursory nod towards the ingredients – nor is it easy to work out how damaging these chemicals are. Basically, your washing powder contains surfactants, bleaches, builders and enzymes. Surfactants are what get your clothes clean; builders are added to make surfactants work better in hard water areas, bleaches release peroxide into your washing machine to remove stains like coffee and enzymes digest stains (and your clothes too, over time). There may also be a whole host of other things as well, such as optical brighteners to make your whites look whiter, dispersing agents to hold removed dye away from the fabric and Ph adjusters that alter the acidity of the water.

 

Unsurprisingly the detergent industry firmly maintains that there is nothing wrong with the chemicals they use and equally unsurprisingly fervent greenies think there is. Overall, some of what is released from your washing machine into the sewage system is efficiently mopped up by our treatment plants. However, around a quarter of all detergents sold in Europe contain phosphates (they’re a ‘builder’) and about a quarter of all the phosphates in our waterways come from our laundry (the rest is the run-off from farming). The consequence of this is eutrophication, where water weeds and algae thrive on the excess phosphate, grow wildly, suck up all the oxygen and smother aquatic life. Plus some surfactants are broken down to a chemical called nonylphenol, which is toxic to fish and causes ‘oestrogen activity’ in mammals. Oestrogen, as you know, is the hormone that helps women grow boobs. According to The Chemistry of the Environment by Bailey, Clark, Ferris, Krause and Strong (published by Academic Press 2002), it’s not clear whether there’s enough nonylphenol in our water to be fish-killing and breast-forming.

 

But just in case – you might want to try using an eco-detergent! Unfortunately, not that many are that good – so next week I’ll let you know the results of my eco-laundry trials…and tribulations.


Photos copyright Sanjida O'Connell


Comments

Eco-remedies
sarahbadr wrote:
Monday, 20 July 2009 at 12:40 pm (UTC)
As with parabens in shampoos and cosmetics, I've long been concerned about harmful chemicals being washed into our water and contaminating our ecosystem. There's no excuse to switch to more eco-friendly (and equally affordable) alternatives, to help minimize any negative environmental impact or potential endocrine disrupting effects.

Ecover's Non Bio Laundry Liquid is my detergent of choice, with the occasional addition of rice wine vinegar for a little extra kick to clean whites and heavier loads.
http://www.ecover.com/gb/en/Products/Laundry/20050711+LQW+UK.htm

The EthicalSuperstore.com and Steenbergs.co.uk both have a great selection of eco-friendly household products. Looking forward to reading about your eco-laundry trials!

Sarah Badr
http://shbadr.com
Eco Chic
ironspiderzero wrote:
Thursday, 23 July 2009 at 01:15 pm (UTC)
I currently handwash my clothes in luke-warm water as I don't possess a washing machine. I use a minimal amount of detergent and hang my clothes as soon as I've rinsed them to reduce ironing. It's all by choice rather than need and I'm happy to do so. It would be good to know which detergents are less polluting than others, given the already restricted number available for handwashing, and the current level of information is too confusing to be easily navigated.
Re: Eco Chic
sanjidaoconnel wrote:
Thursday, 3 September 2009 at 03:48 pm (UTC)
On Monday 7 Sept there will be a paper published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society about nonylphenol contamination of water. If you don't see anything in the press about it, get back to me and I'll try and summarise it. Sanjida
nonylphenol - oestrogen activity in males
wing_a_a_prayer wrote:
Sunday, 2 August 2009 at 02:55 pm (UTC)
I believe this chemical is a disaster area. Some years ago a programme showed half the alligators in the Everglades are hemaphrodites, one third of the eggs of an eagle breed in Canada don't hatch and what is inside is neither male/ female.
Denmark has one the highest incidence of hermaphrodite births (now over to humans), they tend to be very thorough on statistics there, and this is traced (my opinion from the evidence shown) to high levels of nonylphenol in nearly everything. It is widely used for a multitude of daily plastic items - I think it was even in plastic shopping bags.
Can you kindly consider to do a little research on Nonylphenol and let us know what you find? It may be helping the girls but not so good for the guys!

sport
ljgoodlife wrote:
Tuesday, 22 June 2010 at 03:37 am (UTC)
Right your opinions you provide to me , thanks for sharing.by Nike Shox Nz
Good
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Tuesday, 11 January 2011 at 02:38 am (UTC)

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