Hey! Now that we’ve gotten your attention with our greenwash-y, SEO-friendly title (thanks, Google), you should know that while there’s no such thing as “eco-friendly” laundry detergent, here’s what to be wise on when you’re shopping so you can pick the best option for you, the planet, and the people making your stuff.
We love the smell of fresh laundry. Who doesn’t? But did you know that cleaning all of those clothes has led us to do more than 30 billion loads of laundry in North America annually? That’s a lot of soap going down our pipes and ultimately, into our water streams. Below, we’ve done a deep dive into laundry detergent so that you can choose wisely.
WHAT TO BE WISE ON:
The ingredients in laundry detergent can be put into four categories that each serve a specific purpose: surfactants, builders, bleaches and enzymes.
Surfactant molecules are kind of like the post-game cleaning staff at Madison Square Garden who pick up all the trash after the fans have left. They attach themselves to filth that is released into the washing machine’s water and carry the filth away when the water is drained.
Builders are like the concert security ushering all the fans out after a show so that the cleaning staff can do their thing. Imagine janitorial staff trying to clean an arena with a packed crowd? Not possible. Like janitors, surfactants need everyone gone to do their job, which is why builders remove minerals such as calcium and magnesium from the water so that the surfactant molecules can work efficiently.
Bleach and enzymes are like the actual cleaning agents that the staff uses to get rid of gunk in the arena. Bleach gets rid of organic stains (such as coffee), and enzymes eradicate grease, protein, and starch stains (such as olive oil, milk, and flour).
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Factors to consider
Sodium lauryl sulfate
SLS is an emulsifying cleaning agent used to break down and wash away the dirt and grime that water can’t get rid of on its own. It also happens to be a highly toxic threat to aquatic life, from algae to frogs to fish. If you don’t trust us, take it from the World Health Organization, which unequivocally states that SLS “...is toxic to aquatic organisms. It is strongly advised not to let the chemical enter into the environment.” Avoid laundry detergents that contain this harsh ingredient…please.
Fragrances are highly elusive ingredients because they are protected from disclosure. While “fragrance” might appear to be one ingredient on the label, that word could potentially comprise hundreds of chemical compounds just for one scent! These fragrances often include phthalates. Phthalates enable fragrances to become soluble and are known endocrine disruptors in both humans and aquatic life and can even lower the production of testosterone. Studies have found that prenatal exposure to phthalates can decrease mental and motor development in children. Doesn’t strike us as the kind of thing we’d want to use to wash our clothes, so look for “fragrance-free” or “phthalate-free” labels.
Conventional liquid detergent
Liquid detergent is the most popular detergent on the market and can be the most affordable option, but it’s very watered down and therefore requires a ton of fuel to ship around. Liquid detergent is usually packaged in PET plastic or HDPE plastic bottles that, at scale, contribute to about 2.6 million tons of PET and HDPE landfill waste every year. While PET and HDPE plastics are the most widely recycled, they must be cleaned beforehand.
If you’ve ever tried to clean a bottle of sudsy laundry detergent, you know how much water that can require. Moreover, only about 9% of plastics actually end up recycled, so we can’t say for sure that it’s even worth it to waste a bunch of water rinsing these out. For all of these reasons, none of our recommendations fall under this category.
Concentrated liquid detergent
Concentrated liquid detergent is the same concept as conventional liquid detergent, but it is more efficiently formulated. Since a concentrated formula can contain two to three times the number of loads per bottle, it requires much less plastic, water, and shipping fuel compared to conventional liquid detergent.
Powder detergent is usually sold in cardboard boxes, which can be highly recyclable, but not if they’re lined with a thin coat of plastic. Curbside recycling won’t accept paper waste that has plastic attached to it, like coffee cups, and if you’re not careful, trying to recycle this type of waste can result in damages to recycling machinery. However, powder detergent is lighter than liquid, which means that it creates fewer emissions during transport, and cardboard boxes require less energy and plastic use in their production. Overall it’s a good alternative to liquid.
Pods have become a popular choice for detergent because of their convenience, but they are typically packaged in a water-soluble plastic, known as polyvinyl alcohol (PVA). Even though water should break down the PVA encasing, research has found that not all of the material breaks down, and that 7,000 tons of PVA end up passing through wastewater treatments and into our oceans each year. Since PVA can absorb antibiotics and heavy metals, it ends up carrying them across the ocean, which marine life can then eat and get sick from. Not to mention that tiny particles of plastic that end up in our waterways known as microplastics can further disrupt marine life digestion. If you’re looking for convenience, try laundry detergent tablets or sheets instead of pods to eliminate the need for PVA and other plastics.
Detergent tablets are conveniently portioned like pods, but we love that they don’t have the PVA casing that pods require. Choose those that come in cardboard packaging, but make sure you don’t recycle that cardboard if it is coated in plastic.
Detergent sheets are a new liquid-less option that seems really promising. This new type of detergent has its ingredients packed into a sheet that dissolves in water. It is super light to ship, requiring less fuel. Since they’re liquid-less, they use less water and usually no plastic packaging.
Soap nuts are dried soapberries used in lieu of detergent. They are a great option from an environmental standpoint but have received mixed reviews on their ability to remove stains. If you try them, let us know what you think!
Managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the BioPreferred label makes it easier for consumers to opt for bio-based products. This means that the product’s ingredients are primarily derived from raw materials, such as plants, that provide an alternative to conventional petroleum-based products. Products that bear this label have a verified amount of renewable biological ingredients that are strictly monitored by the USDA.
EPA Safer Choice
An EPA Safer Choice label indicates that the chemicals in a product have been reviewed by the Environmental Protection Agency to meet strict safety criteria for both human and environmental health. All ingredients have to meet these standards and manufacturers have to disclose all ingredients (looking at you, fragrances!).
Leaping Bunny is an internationally recognized symbol that guarantees no new animal tests were conducted with any ingredients in a product. It’s the most stringent animal rights standard, so prioritize this one if you want to alleviate your animal welfare concerns.