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April 08, 2009

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von: Let's confine the discussion to phosphates in detergent, Gary, which is the subject of the post.

That's a joke, right? It is an open thread...

Let's confine the discussion to phosphates in detergent, Gary, which is the subject of the post.

As the title to my post obliquely suggested, phosphates are generally not considered to be a pollutant. They are a fertilizers. ("Triple super phosphate" isn't just a cool word; it is fertilizer.) As Gwangung points out, however, you can have too much of a good thing: too much phosphate entering still waters encourages too much plant growth which depletes oxygen supplies in the water. And that harms fish, which need oxegenated water.

But phosphates serve a very important role in detergent as well: in rough terms, they make detergents sudsier where water has a high mineral content (i.e., "hard water").* If I understand the science correctly, they also may serve various stabilizations functions to keep the detergent an emulsion

What does Consumer Reports have to say?

Green can clean. Phosphates help boost the cleaning power of detergents, but they also harm the environment by encouraging algae growth in freshwater. Of the six phosphate-free cleaners tested for this detergents review, five have enzymes. The Ecover tablet and powder and Seventh Generation do a good to excellent job cleaning. The Seventh Generation is reasonably priced, making this eco-friendly cleaners an attractive option.

So it does seem to be the case that there are alternative products available which are just as effective.

There may be alternatives to phosphates, but none of them do each of these jobs as well as phosphates at the same price. Hence, phosphates in detergent.

My cite says are reasonable alternatives in terms of effectiveness and price, but assume for the sake of argument that this is not so. On another site, one poster was complaining that energy efficient dryers made his clothes wrinkly, which entailed some extra ironing. Assuming that there is no other alternative in this case then, let's go with the option of wrinkle-free clothes vs an extra 1,000 people dying a year from cancer and pulmonary related diseases.

Yes, I am quite sure that many people would go with the wrinkle-free option that caused more deaths and used more energy. That's why I would prefer some centralized regulators with teeth to decide whether or not to ban traditional dryers by a certain date. Understand, I'm not saying that I think they should ban traditional dryers, just that I would tend to trust them more than someone who would attach such great importance to his clothes, and so little importance to the lives of others.

And I say this as an Eisenhower-type conservative :-)

Assuming that there is no other alternative in this case then, let's go with the option of wrinkle-free clothes vs an extra 1,000 people dying a year from cancer and pulmonary related diseases.

Eh? This is actually a tradeoff?

Von, I don't understand how this is different from making leaded gasoline, cheaper products through by just dumping pollutants into the air, groundsoil, and rivers, cheaper products via child labor, cheap pajamas that are combustible, and all sorts of other things that there's consumer demand for, but which society/our government has done away with for the common good.

Let's confine the discussion to phosphates in detergent, Gary, which is the subject of the post.

Let's answer the question, please. Thanks.

phosphates are generally not considered to be a pollutant.

Von, you really don't know a d*mn thing about water law, do you?

Phosphates may be considered fertilizer, but so are nitrates.

Just one of the many problems with the Everglades, to pick one of many examples, is lawn runoff. In Florida, things tend to wash out of the soil rather quickly and into the local watercourses. The Army Corps of Engineers in their infinite wisdom decided that it was a GOOD thing to straighten the Kissimmee River, which basically mainlined all of the nitrates, phosphates and other things that make algae go boom straight into Lake Okeechobee.

The result was not good, to understate things. There were other problems with straightening the river, including that heavy rainfalls on Central Florida result in a much more rapid pulse into the lake. Which has been diked and plugged to the point where a really good hurricane might just rupture the dike and flood the surrounding community. Not all that many people, but about as impoverished as it gets, IIRC.

Also killed back dramatically, but now making a comeback, is Lake Apopka, northwest of Orlando.

Maybe these are not pollutants in the sense that the average joe thinks, but if the result is a lot of dead critters, what's the difference? Possibly they might lose their toxic effect more rapidly, but as long as they're being replenished, it's there.

I tend to think of this as more of a problem for Florida, where whitewater is unknown even during heavy rainfall, than it is for Spokane. But I could be wrong about that.

Let me actually defend von on the phosphates point.

It's not about about whether phosphates are a pollutant, or whether dishwasher soap is creating externalities.

The very limited point is that Drum said soap manufacturers had thus far resisted phasing out phosphorous for no good reason, that they could create phosphate free soaps that were just as good.

But there really isn't evidence of that - apparently the manufacturers, confronted with bans in several states and provinces ARE going to phase out phosphates all over. But they still aren't promising that the new soaps will work exactly the same.

And the soap smuggling is (weak) evidence that they, the existing ones at least, really don't.

(Although, seriously, folks in Eastern Washington, and everywhere else, need to get some perspective.)

As the title to my post obliquely suggested, phosphates are generally not considered to be a pollutant. They are a fertilizers.

This, however, is kind of boneheaded. Even (maybe especially) with the follow on sentence about "too much of a good thing".

von, you claim that municipalities can treat waste water to remove phosphates. Such treatment is not free. It costs money. Why should all residents have to pay extra so that some people with dishwashers can get the benefits. I understand why this is a good deal for the folks with dishwashers and hard water and no water softeners, but why should their interests prevail over the interests of everyone else?

Gary, I don't know what question you want me to answer. Do you want me to explain why phosphates in detergents are different from, say, child labor?

Von, you really don't know a d*mn thing about water law, do you?

Yeah, you're right: that was poorly put (and immediately contradicted by my next sentence, as someone else noted). I didn't mean that phosphates are not a pollutant under appropriate circumstances. I meant that phosphates are not ipso facto a pollutant once it is released to the environment in the same way that, say, lead is.

I meant that phosphates are not ipso facto a pollutant once it is released to the environment in the same way that, say, lead is.

I don't understand what distinction you're trying to draw here or why it matters. Can you clarify?

Are you trying to suggest that pollutants which directly impact human health matter while others don't?

Bijan: So, stepping back, I have to say that Vermont did not "grant" gay marriage in the right way. The right way would have been never to have denied it.

Thanks -- that's great stuff. (The whole thought train, actually, but this is an important and seldom-mentioned core point.)

Assuming that there is no other alternative in this case then, let's go with the option of wrinkle-free clothes vs an extra 1,000 people dying a year from cancer and pulmonary related diseases.

Eh? This is actually a tradeoff?

Posted by: Slartibartfast

I don't have the numbers, but most electricity in the U.S. is generated by coal-fired plants. So yes, all other things being equal, more people would die in one scenario than the other.

How many more I don't really know. One extra person every thousand years doesn't seem to merit any restrictions, while one homeless child per laundry load seems like too much of a price to pay. To me, at least :-) That's why I would prefer some sort of central regulation in this instance, air pollution being the type of diffuse externality that it is.

The very limited point is that Drum said soap manufacturers had thus far resisted phasing out phosphorous for no good reason, that they could create phosphate free soaps that were just as good.

Bear in mind there's Capitalism 101 as preached by the libertarian types, and there is the real-world capitalism that goes beyond the Econ 101 they use to justify their opinions.

Now, it's often said that companies will compete, and this competition produces innovation, which is good for the consumer, yaddah, yaddah. But . . . that's not really what is being taught. If companies compete through innovation alone, sure this is sort of analysis is (very roughly) justified. But bear in mind that innovation costs money. It bears risk. An established company my choose to compete in a different way, say on pricing or advertising, and let some other firm bear the risks of innovation. If such innovation produces a new or improved product that consumers demand over other products, they need merely copy or buy out the upstart. If the innovation fails (for any of a number of reason), the company does not bear the burden recouping the costs sunk into R&D.

So innovation may occur in a way that is beneficial to the consumer, but it is also risky in ways that businesses do not like and usually seek to avoid. And it's quite possible this is where a product like phosphate-free detergent is positioned right now. At least, in the eyes of people like Procter & Gamble.

I meant that phosphates are not ipso facto a pollutant once it is released to the environment in the same way that, say, lead is.

Yeah. I don't understand the distinction either.

I think you mean that phosphates are, for example, spread on fields and that this somehow counts as "release into the environment".

But it doesn't really. I mean, if you want to get finicky, even lead or mercury aren't pollutants ipso facto. They both have all kinds of uses. And the use of mercury as part of a manufacturing process, or a mining process, or in dental amalgam, is not, by itself, pollution.

And fields in this instance are basically a kind of manufacturing facility, albeit an organic and poorly confined one. The use of phosphates on a field isn't really a 'release' any more than the use of mercury in a factory is.

The 'release' actually occurs when the phosphates run off the fields. And then they're pollutants. Ipso facto even.

POS rocks, Never Better is amazing. Thanks!

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