NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


April 1, 2009

The quest for squeaky-clean dishes has turned some law-abiding people in Spokane into dishwater-detergent smugglers.  They are bringing Cascade or Electrasol in from out of state because the eco-friendly varieties required under Washington state law don't work as well.  Spokane County became the launch pad last July for the nation's strictest ban on dishwasher detergent made with phosphates, a measure aimed at reducing water pollution.  The ban will be expanded statewide in July 2010, the same time similar laws take effect in several other states, says the Associated Press (AP).

But it's not easy to get sparkling dishes when you go green:

  • Many people were shocked to find that products like Seventh Generation, Ecover and Trader Joe's left their dishes encrusted with food, smeared with grease and too gross to use without rewashing them by hand.
  • The culprit was hard water, which is mineral-rich and resistant to soap.
  • As a result, there has been a quiet rush of Spokane-area shoppers heading east on Interstate 90 into Idaho in search of old-school suds.

In truth, the ban applies to the sale of phosphate detergent -- not its use.  Shoppers can still buy phosphate detergents in Washington state by venturing outside Spokane County, but Idaho is more convenient to many Spokane residents:

  • Phosphates -- the main cleaning agent in many detergents and household cleaners -- break down grease and remove stains.
  • However, the chemicals are difficult to remove in wastewater treatment plants and often wind up in rivers and lakes, where they promote the growth of algae which gobbles up oxygen in the water that fish need to survive.
  • While traditional detergents are up to 9 percent phosphate, those sold in Spokane County can contain no more than.5 percent.

Phosphates have been banned in laundry detergent nationally since 1993.  Washington was the first state where the Legislature passed a similar ban against dishwasher detergents, in 2006.  The ban is being phased in, starting with Spokane County.

Among other states that have banned or are banning phosphates in dishwasher detergent are Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Michigan, Vermont, Minnesota, Illinois, Massachusetts and New York.  A bill on Capitol Hill would impose a nationwide ban.

Source: Nicholas K. Gernaios, "Spokane residents smuggle suds over green brands," Associated Press/, March 28, 2009.


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