Every summer, lakes become inundated with algae. As the slimy, green muck dies, it chokes out oxygen, which can kill fish and other aquatic life. One cause of all that algae – phosphorus in the water. The phosphorus comes from natural sources such as decaying leaves, and it comes in farm and lawn fertilizer, which runs off into the water. But there’s also phosphorus in a product many of us use every day – dishwasher soap – which goes directly into the water and down the drain. One state might be the first in the nation to ban phosphorus in dishwasher soap, and as the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mary Stucky reports, other states might follow:
Every summer, lakes become inundated with algae. As the slimy, green muck dies, it chokes out
oxygen, which can kill fish and other aquatic life. One cause of all that algae – phosphorus in the
water. The phosphorus comes from natural sources such as decaying leaves, and it comes in farm
and lawn fertilizer, which runs off into the water. But there’s also phosphorus in a product many
of us use every day – dishwasher soap – which goes directly into the water and down the drain.
One state might be the first in the nation to ban phosphorus in dishwasher soap, and as the Great
Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mary Stucky reports, other states might follow:
(ambient sound of lapping water)
Lakes are a source of natural beauty, recreation, tourist dollars, even food. And in Minnesota
people take their lakes seriously. But when the algae takes over, no one wants to swim in the
scum, fish die for a lack of oxygen and the lake’s ecosystem is endangered.
(natural sound break)
Phosphorus occurs naturally. Some of it comes from decaying vegetation, grass clippings and
dead leaves. But because too much phosphorus is harmful, lawmakers have banned it from
certain commercial products. Last year Minnesota banned it from lawn fertilizer. And decades
ago, many states outlawed laundry detergent containing phosphorus. But they didn’t ban it in
“There were not near the number in 1970 of automatic dishwashers in the households. It’s an
everyday thing now. ”
Ray Cox Is a Republican representative in the Minnesota legislature. He is sponsoring the bill,
banning phosphorus in dishwasher soap. There are phosphorus free dishwasher soaps, but they’re
a tiny fraction of the market. Still, Cox says phosphorus free soaps work better than they used to
because of the improvements that have been made in dishwashers.
“There are many, many products around here available right now and they work great. We’ve
used it for many years at home and there’s no problem. I mean, our dishes are clean.”
(ambient sound of dishwasher running)
Unlike other products containing phosphorus, detergent is flushed directly down the drain. For
each box of dishwasher detergent, it costs your local sewer treatment plant at least two dollars
and fifty cents to remove the phosphorus. But most cities don’t have state of the art water
treatment, so a lot of phosphorus makes its way into lakes, rivers and streams. Just how much, no
one knows exactly. One study estimates that 6 percent of the phosphorus in water comes from
dishwasher detergent, according to Don Arnosti of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, a
coalition of 80 environmental groups.
“Removing this phosphorus will improve our waterways. How much, that’s what’s in debate. Is
it 6 percent as we suggest? Is it 8 percent? Is it 4 percent? And we say that’s not important.
Nobody is saying it’s not gonna be an improvement.”
But will the improvement be worth the cost? Tony Kwilas is a lobbyist for the Minnesota
Chamber of Commerce, which has taken the lead in attacking the ban. He says consumers won’t
stand for it because it doesn’t help that much and the replacement products are inferior.
“Why ban a product that we’re not quite sure the cost benefit of it. In Europe they went
phosphorus-free and they turned around and went back due to consumer complaints. Mainly it
sounds like there’s spotting and scratching on some of the glasses, and it doesn’t get all the food
Tony Kwilas says a ban on phosphorus in dishwasher detergent won’t really help much since
there are so many sources of phosphorus in the water.
“I’m not going to dispute that phosphorus is a problem, but if you look at what phosphorus is
contained in, it’s contained in antifreeze, it’s contained in chicken tenders, it’s contained in
bath beads, frozen fish, fire extinguishers, instant pudding, pet food, toothpaste, cake mixes. I
mean, so phosphorus is everywhere.”
To ban phosphorus in dishwasher soap would raise the cost about 70 cents a box. But most
consumers seem unaware of the issue, even those shopping at this food co-op in St Paul.
“I was not made aware that this was really harming our environment badly.” “I thought
phosphorus was already gone.” “You know, I just became aware of it, so I will start paying
attention to it right now.” “We don’t pay attention regularly.” “I had no idea that was in there
There doesn’t seem to be a consumer demand for phosphorus-free dishwasher detergent, just yet.
Don Arnosti of the Environmental Partnership says just as they did with dolphin-safe tuna and
phosphorus-free laundry soap, consumers need to make their voices heard.
“It’s time for the people of Minnesota to speak up and say clean water is more important than the
soap industry’s contribution to certain politicians.”
But if Minnesota passes the ban, what would happen? Would major detergent manufacturers
make special dishwasher soap just to sell in one state? Minnesota lawmaker Ray Cox says look
at what happened as states started to ban phosphorus in laundry detergent.
“As soon as the scale tipped to where we had about 20 states that were banning it all the
manufacturers gave up the fight and they reformulated and nobody makes anything that has that
significant content anymore. So while you can say a state by state basis doesn’t make any sense,
on many things I think that’s the way we have to go.”
Cox says if Minnesota starts the ball rolling, it’ll just be a matter of time before phosphorus is
removed from dishwasher soap everywhere, which is why both sides are paying so much
attention to what happens in Minnesota.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Mary Stucky in St Paul.