What Are the Effects of Detergents on the Environment?

The effects of detergents on the environment include the release of substances toxic to humans and other organisms in waste water and the carbon footprint involved in the manufacture of detergents. Additionally, the containers used to store detergents are often not biodegradable or recyclable.

Although waste water from detergents flushes out to sewage treatment plants, the water is not always completely purged of chemicals when it is released back into the environment. Additionally, some detergents are allowed to flow directly into the ground. These wastes contain damaging chemicals. For instance, surfactants, chemicals that allow detergents to foam and absorb solids, release toxins harmful to fish, algae and aquatic invertebrates. Bleaches not only damage fabrics but threaten human health. Colorants are potentially cancer-causing and damage human health in other ways as well. Brighteners and solvents are also toxic to humans and aquatic life.

A carbon footprint indicates how much carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere during the manufacture and use of products. The carbon footprint of each load of laundry washed with detergent is one to two pounds, with solid detergent having more of a negative impact than liquid detergent. This is roughly equivalent to the amount of carbon dioxide a car emits when it travels a mile.