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Taking the Next Step

We live in a day and age where environmental concern and green awareness issues are at an all time high.  All industries are, or should be, focused on taking steps towards optimizing efficiency and productivity all the while minimizing their environmental impact and carbon footprint.  The laundry sector is no exception when it comes to going green. 

Recent trends in the laundry sector include the promotion of high efficiency washers for home laundering, shifting to cold (or cooler) wash water temperatures, decreasing wash cycle times, utilizing automatic dispensing equipment, and the increased use of ozone injection systems.

Most of these efforts focus on reducing the energy costs and requirements of the laundry room.  With gasoline, electricity, and natural gas prices at all time record highs, it is easy to see why energy efficiency is the number one priority of most laundry rooms.  Increasing fuel (energy) efficiency will not only positively impact a laundry rooms budget, but will also positively impact the environment by reducing fossil fuel emissions and consumption.

Once these goals of energy efficiency are realized, what do you do next?  When it comes to being environmentally conscious, do you stop here, or do you strive to do more?  How do you take the next step towards a truly green laundry room?  The answer to that question lies in proper laundry room chemical selection.  Focusing on the chemicals that will ultimately be flushed down the drain and into the water supply is of vital importance when considering your laundry room’s environmental impact. 

The absence of true green laundry chemical standards does make this step a little difficult, but by no means impossible.  By applying many of the universal green criteria such as no VOC's, no phosphates, no toxic or persistent components and byproducts, readily biodegradable, no ozone depleting chemical, etc.,  you will see which products belong in a green laundry room and which ones do not.  The following sections outline specific laundry room products, chemicals to avoid in these products, as well as suggestions for environmentally friendly alternatives to help you take the next step towards a truly green laundry room.

  1. Builders:  A builder is used in laundry to change the quality and properties of water, specifically water hardness and pH.  By controlling the water quality, a builder allows detergents and bleaches to work more efficiently, thus ensuring optimal cleaning performance.  Environmentally-preferable builders will biodegrade to less toxic and persistent chemicals that pose no human health risks. 

    Phosphates, chemicals containing POn-, are used in many different laundry chemicals (builders, detergents, bleaches) to soften water and buffer pH.  Anyone associated with green cleaning over the years knows that products containing phosphates are not green or environmentally-friendly in anyway due to their role in the eutrophication of our waterways.  (1)  Nitrilotriacetate (NTA) is an effective, biodegradable water softener (chelating agent) that is still used in several laundry products; even though, it is listed on many chemical inventories as being a known cause of cancer and poses severe human health risks.  (2)  Laundry builders containing silicates or zeolites, chemicals containing SiO2 and AlO2, should also be avoided because they will accumulate in the environment due to poor biodegradation rates.

    To select builders that have appositive environmental profile, look for laundry products that contain sodium citrate, ethylenediaminedisuccinic acid (EDDS), tetrasodium iminodisuccinate, or carboxymethyl inulin.  The products are all effective at controlling water quality in the wash wheel with a minimal environmental impact.  These chemicals are all readily biodegradable and pose fewer health and environmental concerns compared to phosphates, NTA, silicates, or zeolites.
  2. Surfactants and Detergents:  Surface active agents, or surfactants, are the active cleaning agents in most laundry detergent formulations.  Surfactants work to loosen, emulsify, and suspend soil, as well as to enhance the wetting ability of water.  “Green” laundry detergents will contain surfactants that will readily biodegrade into less toxic and persistent or bioaccumulative chemicals.

    Alkylphenol ethoxylates are common nonionic surfactants still frequently used in laundry detergent formulations.  Due to their persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic nature, alkylphenol ethoxylate-based laundry detergents should be avoided when selecting environmentally-friendly products.  Research has shown that while the ethoxylate part of the structure biodegrades quickly, the alkylphenol part of the structure biodegrades much more slowly.  (3)  In separate studies, alkylphenol has been shown to be an endocrine disruptor in both laboratory animals and fish.  (4), (5) 

    Instead of using detergents containing alkylphenol ethoxylates, look for laundry detergents that contain:  linear alcohol ethoxylates (LAEs), alkyl polyglucosides (APGs), and/or linear alcohol ester ethoxylates (LAEEs).  All of these chemicals are readily biodegradable and break down into components that have minimal environmental impact.  (6)  These chemicals also have the added benefits of being at least partially biobased, as well as being easily dispersable at lower water temperatures.  Utilizing LAEs based laundry detergents are much more effective at cleaning at lower wash temperatures because of this ease of dispersablity.
  3. Laundry Bleaches, Fabric Softeners, Sours:  Bleaches enhance laundry detergent performance by breaking down the molecular bonds of many tough stains and rendering them invisible to the naked eye.  The most commonly used bleach, chlorine bleach, poses the potential to form hazardous chlorinated gases and organic byproducts.  (7)  A more environmentally safe bleaching chemical would be an oxygen bleach containing hydrogen peroxide.  Hydrogen peroxide degrades into two very environmentally-friendly compounds: water (H2O) and oxygen (O2).

    Fabric softeners utilize cationic, positively-charged, surfactants to reduce fabric rigidity, control static, and to leave the fabric feeling soft and fluffy.  Green fabric softeners should be readily biodegradable to prevent bioaccumulation of chemicals.  Cationic surfactants that contain ester, amide, or peroxide linkages tend to biodegrade much more quickly than most other cationics.

    Laundry sours are used to neutralize residual levels of alkalinity, leaving the final fabric pH at a safe level.  Mineral acid based sours, those containing hydrochloric (HCl), sulfuric (H2SO4), or phosphoric (H3PO4) acid, should be avoided due to their potential to form hazardous gases and byproducts that can be extremely harmful to both laundry workers and the environment.  Laundry sours that contain organic acids, such as citric (C6H8O7) and lactic (C3H6O3) acid, tend to not form hazardous byproducts, are naturally derived, and much safer on the environment.  

    Take a minute to consider what kind of impact your facility has on the environment around you.  From becoming energy efficient to selecting environmentally preferable chemicals, we all need to do our part when it comes to cleaning for the environment.  Becoming energy efficient and selecting the proper laundry chemicals is not a difficult task, especially when you consider that the health of your laundry workers and the environment are at stake.  Remember, how we live tomorrow is predicated on what we do today.  Are you willing to take the next step towards green, to help ensure a safe tomorrow for everyone?


  1. Molecular Chlorine: Health and Environmental Effects. Vetrano, K. M. 2001, Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, Vol. 170, pp. 75-140.
  2. Disruption of sexual differentiation in genetic male carp (Cyprinus Carpio) exposed to an alkyphenol during different life stages. S. Gimeno, H. Komen, P.W.M. Venderbosch, T. Bowmer. 1997, Environmental Science Technology, Vol. 31, pp. 2884-2890.
  3. The effects of 4-nonylphenol in rats: A multigeneration reproduction study. R.E. Chapin, J. Dulaney, Y. Wang, L. Lanning, B. Davis, B. Collins, N. Mintz, G. Wolfe. 1999, Toxicological Science, Vol. 52, pp. 80-91.
  4. Behavior of alkylphenol polyethoxylate surfactants in the awuatic environment. M. Ahel, W. Giger, M. Koch. 1994, Water Research, Vol. 28, pp. 1131-1152.
  5. The anaerobic degradation of detergent range fatty alcohol ethoxylates. Studies with 14C labeledmodel surfactants. J. Steber, P. Wierich. 1987, Water Resarch, Vol. 21, pp. 661-667.
  6. Eutrophication, Past and Present: Causes, Consequences, Correctives. Hutchinson, G.E. 1969, National Academy of Science, pp. 17-26.
  7. Nitrilotriacetic Acid and its Salts. IARC Summary & Evaluation. 1990, Vol. 48.


Quick Rinse - News From Around The World

Mission Linen's Two Healthcare Accreditations

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — Mission Linen Supply has received two healthcare accreditations from Healthcare Laundry Accreditation (HLAC) for their Chino, California and Phoenix, Arizona plants. The first was received in 2009 and the Arizona accreditation was received this year. HLAC inspects and accredits laundries that process healthcare textiles for hospitals, nursing homes, and other healthcare facilities.