Environment Picture

Phosphate-free dish detergent now the law in Michigan; healthier lawn fertilizer up next

Phosphorus in automatic dishwasher detergents became a thing of the past in Michigan when a statewide ban took effect on July 1.

The ban was passed by the legislature in 2008 at the urging of the Michigan Environmental Council and numerous other groups and citizens concerned about water quality in streams and lakes. Industry was given two years to phase out the old formulas and adopt new lines of phosphate-free detergents.

Phosphorous is essentially junk food for algae and other aquatic plants. It fouls boat propellers, washes up in smelly decomposing heaps on beaches, and depletes life-giving oxygen on which fish and other organisms depend.

MEC Policy Director James Clift said the phosphorus-laden detergent can be especially harmful to wildlife in inland lakes.

“Excessive phosphorus in water can lead to dead zones, which are areas in the water in which algae has driven the fish out,” Clift said. “Excessive algae can also impair recreational activities like fishing, boating and swimming.”

Phosphorus in laundry detergent and soap for hand washing dishes was banned decades ago at a time when few households had automatic dishwashers. The new rules essentially close what had become a significant loophole in the law.

Dish detergent represents just a small part of the phosphorus loading that harms Michigan lakes and streams. The nutrient escapes from wastewater treatment plants, septic systems, and runoff from fertilizers applied to farm fields and residential lawns.

MEC is supporting legislation pending in the Michigan House of Representatives that would ban phosphorus in lawn fertilizers. Exceptions would be made for lawns where soil testing shows phosphorus deficiency—a rare circumstance in Michigan.

“Established lawns just don’t need the extra amounts (of phosphorus),” Clift said. “About 90 percent of Michigan lawns receive sufficient amounts.”
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