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Laundering for the Environment

Attention Laundry Managers: Do you realize that the laundry detergent you use may be harming the environment and putting your workers at unnecessary risk?
Each year, laundry facilities use and release to the environment billions of pounds of wash room chemicals. Many of these chemicals–the ingredients in commonly used laundry products–pose a serious hazard to the planet and living things. At stake is the health of rivers, lakes, and streams and the animal life that inhabit them--but also the health and well being of the individuals who spend their days inside the wash room.

Many conventional detergents are also resource gluttons–drawing extra-large portions of water, gas, and electricity, and taking a toll on fabrics and linen life.

If this information comes as a surprise to you, you're not alone. The focus of attention in institutional and industrial laundering is typically on what you are cleaning and not on what you are using to clean. As our population grows and we continue to demand more from our natural systems and resources, we must pay greater attention to the chemicals we use and the wastes we generate. The health of our environment and all living things depends on it!

Consider these eye-opening facts on some common detergent ingredients:


These are the detergent work horses. The ingredients that get the dirt and foreign matter off what you're cleaning.

The bad news: The most common surfactant is nonylphenol ethoxylate (NPE). Like other surfactants, it is toxic to fish and other aquatic life. But unlike many other surfactants, it biodegrades or breaks down over time to compounds that are even more toxic and that hang around in the environment. Some of these compounds may even disrupt the endocrine system, which controls metabolism, reproduction, and growth. The potential effects can be profound; for example, endocrine disruptors can turn male fish into female fish.

The good news: Laundry detergent formulators can use surfactants that biodegrade rapidly to chemicals that are not toxic to fish and other aquatic life, that do not linger in the environment, and that do not threaten endocrine systems. These safer surfactants (example: linear alcohol ethoxylates) are readily available and substitute easily for the NPEs–and they even work better at lower temperatures.

Builders. These ingredients alter the properties of water so that the surfactants can do their job. They typically raise the pH and remove metals from hard water so the surfactants can work more efficiently.

The bad news: The most commonly used builders are inorganic phosphates. In fresh water systems, very small amounts of phosphate can cause enormous growth of algae in just days. The result: as the algae dies the oxygen levels in the water decline, as does the ability of the water to support aquatic life. In other words, "dead zones" form, like the one in the Gulf of Mexico around the mouth of the Mississippi River.

The good news: Inorganic phosphates have replacements, chemicals that neither rob the oxygen from water nor have other negative environmental properties. In fact, a new class of builders (called maleic anhydride derivatives) is both effective at softening water (so the surfactant can perform) and friendly to the environment.

Bleaches. Something we're all familiar with--we rely on these chemicals to sanitize, remove stains, and whiten (cottons).

The bad news: Using chlorine bleach (that is, sodium hypochlorite) carries lots of risks. The chemical is very toxic, corrosive when swallowed or inhaled. It can combine with other chemicals in harmful ways: with some substances (like ammonia) it forms a toxic gas; with others (like organic matter) it forms compounds that are toxic and carcinogenic in humans. In the home, it is the culprit in more poisoning than any other substance. Chlorine bleach is also known to damage linens and can cause yellowing of polyester fabrics. As part of a laundry system, it requires extra chemicals (anti-chlors) and rinses and works best at higher temperatures.

The good news:
Non-chlorine bleaches can substitute for chlorine in laundry detergent systems. Oxygen bleaches (like hydrogen peroxide) combined with a chemical booster can bleach and sanitize effectively with low risk to human health and the environment--and at low wash temperatures.

And there's similar news on the other ingredients in laundry detergent formulations (solvents, softeners, fragrances, colorants, etc.). On the resource front, certain ingredients and laundry systems directly affect whether you save resources and dollars or waste them.

Visit for details.

On the resource front, certain ingredients and laundry systems directly affect whether you save resources and dollars or waste them. Systems with improved efficiency and conservation benefits use detergent formulas that wash at lower temperatures and mild pH, without chlorine bleach. These systems use less water for rinsing, less energy to heat the water, and cause less damage to fabrics. Systems with environment-friendly ingredients that also reduce wash/rinse cycles can boost productivity (wash output per unit cost). If the bulk of laundering costs lie in labor, linen replacement, water/sewage, and energy, then systems that conserve and use resources efficiently are not just good for the environment, but your bottom line as well.

If the information in this article concerns you, fortunately, there is something you can do. DfE partner companies, listed with their DfE-recognized products in the sidebar, formulate with the environment and human health strongly in mind. Laundering with one of these products will help lighten the load on Mother Earth and make the wash room a safer place. Or, you can contact your current supplier and ask them to work with the Design for the Environment program to improve the environment and health profile of their products. You can make a difference in the health of the planet and its inhabitants.

Download a copy of the EPA brochure entititled:
"Design for the Environment:Industrial and Institutional Laundry Partnership Initiative --EPA and Industry Working Together"

Quick Rinse - News From Around The World

Ecolab Receives Environmental Stewardship Award

AUSTRIA - An environmental stewardship award was recently given to Ecolab Inc. in Austria in recognition of the their efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of a local hospital laundry. The award is for implementing their PERformance SMART low-temperature at an Austrian hospital. The laundry program is said to reduce water and energy usage, in addition to shortening wash time.