When Clean Dishes Means Smuggling Detergent

A new law in Spokane makes some cross state lines for dishwasher detergent.

April 7, 2009, 7:08 AM

April 7, 2009— -- Lisa Brewer doesn't consider herself a criminal and she really wants to help the environment -- even biking to work -- but she also wants clean dishes.

That's why later this week, the Spokane, Wash., resident plans to cross into Idaho and smuggle back some dishwasher detergent.

She's not alone.

Spokane County has banned the use of most common detergents because of the effect they have on area rivers and lakes. The problem is, the environmentally friendly detergents now sold instead just don't seem to do the job.

"I understand what they're trying to do, but when you have to wash a load of dishes twice that's a dilemma," Brewer said. "I just ran out of the old stuff and am going to [Idaho] on Thursday."

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Brewer tried a new, eco-friendly cleaner and "my dishes didn't get clean."

"They weren't bad, but the other stuff just did better," she said. "You want to help the environment, but you want your dishes clean."

Most dishwasher detergents in America help get dishes clean with the help of phosphates. The problem is those same cleaning chemicals also lead to algae growth and oxygen depletion in rivers. In Spokane County phosphate levels in rivers and lakes are so high that they are putting fish at risk.

So in July, a new law went into effect banning such water-softening phosphates in dishwasher detergent. It was the first such ban in the country.

But not everybody was happy. Suddenly stores across the border noticed more people with out-of-state license plates stocking up on detergent.

"When Washington first banned, we had a difficult time keeping it in stock," said Randy McIntire, spokesman for grocery chain Super 1 Foods. "I talked to a person who was buying six boxes."

Cigarettes are also cheaper in Idaho and McIntire hypothesized that shoppers are making the trip for a few items, including the banned detergent.

Stockpiling Dishwasher Detergent

Patti Marcotte stockpiles the normal detergent she buys at an Idaho Costco in the basement of her Spokane home. She says the environmentally friendly brands she tried use more water and energy.

"I actually had to clean them in the sink, put them in the dishwasher, run with detergent and then run it again to get all the film off," Marcotte told ABC News affiliate KATU.

Shannon Brattebo, an officer with the Washington Lake Protection Association, one of the groups behind the ban, said that she has heard of a lot of people driving to Idaho.

"I don't think people understand why we're doing it [banning phosphates] or why it's important," Brattebo said. "If they did, I don't think the majority of people would mind."

She said that the Spokane River violates state water safety standards and that rather than spend billions of dollars to upgrade sewage treatment plants, it was easier to attack the problem at the source.

Brattebo said people are having mixed results. Some brands are better than others, but the key factor depends on how hard your water is. The harder the water, the less effective the phosphate-free detergents are.

Mary Goodsell is one of the lucky residents.

"Truly, it works fantastic," she said of her new gel detergent.

Goodsell has her own well and finds the water is not as hard.

"I couldn't be any happier. It works so much better than the powder for me," she said.

The cleaning supply industry supports eliminating phosphates, but just not now.

The Soap and Detergent Association backed legislation in 12 states mandating a reduction in the use of phosphorus in automatic dishwashing detergents to a maximum of 0.5 percent by weight by July 1, 2010. Currently, most have about 9 percent.

By summer 2010, residents in Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Utah, Vermont, Virginia and Washington will need to buy phosphate-free detergent. California also passed such a measure but it was vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

But for now, the industry admits that it doesn't have a powerful enough phosphate-free cleaner. Dennis Griesing, vice president of government affairs for the Soap and Detergent Association, said his members are working on such detergents and that's why they are supporting the 2010 date.

"In Spokane we had a very full debate on the issue," Griesing said. "We warned them that this would happen, that there would be consumer dissatisfaction."

The Dangers of Phosphates

Phosphates are great for helping clean household items. The chemicals like to bind to other things, such as food particles, and keep them suspended in the water. So tomato sauce cleaned off that dirty plate won't get stuck on your forks.

But it also causes algae blooms that can suck oxygen out of the water and cause toxins to be released into streams and lakes.

By 1993, phosphates were no longer included in laundry detergent. It has taken a lot longer to figure out how to remove it from dishwasher cleansers.

Griesing noted that people crossing state lines for detergent is nothing new. With laundry cleaners, some states went phosphate-free sooner than others and consumers stocked up across the border, just like they are doing today in Idaho.

"This reflects a pattern of consumer behavior that we've seen in the past," he said.

So are there any good "green" products out there?

Carolyn Forte, the director of home application and cleaning products at the Good Housekeeping Research Institute, said until now there really hasn't been a great substitute for the phosphates. But some manufactures are close. Palmolive has one and Cascade just launched a nonphosphate gel.

"It was very good," Forte said of her tests on the gel.

Still, several of the environmentally sensitive manufacturers have told her that you have to do a little more work to clean your dishes with their products.

"You have to put a little more effort in to get the results you expect," Forte said. "There's a tradeoff."

Today's laundry detergents, she said, get the job done without the phosphates

As for glass and all-purpose cleaners, some are better than others.

Forte recommends Greenworks from Clorox; Simple Green; cleaners from SEC Johnson and Sun and Earth.

"It depends on the brand," she said. "It's more trial and error."

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