Are your dishes killing our fishes? Is washing your clothes suffocating our lakes and rivers? Surely not ...... right? Wrong.
New Zealand has been bombarded with news over the last few years regarding our lakes and rivers and about how they're not quite as clean and green as we had been lead to previously believe.
The two nutrients causing the most concern are nitrogen and phosphorous. Both of these are essential for plant health and are therefore applied liberally as fertiliser to farms. Agriculture, particularly intensive dairy farming, is the main source of unwanted nutrients in fresh water. But farming’s not the whole story (although a very very big part!). Did you realise that you too might inadvertently be contributing to the nutrient overload?
How do you contribute?
The contribution I want to talk about is phosphorous. Phosphorous is one of the basic components of life and is present in all living creatures. It also a significant component of household cleaners. It's primary use is to help dissolve dirt, and bind up other compounds (such as calcium in hard water) which can reduce the effectiveness of detergents. One of the main culprits is dishwashing powders and detergents. For instance, Finish Powerball contains more than 30% phosphate.
"Why does it matter though?" I hear you ask. Well, good question.
First, let me explain the effects these excess nutrients are having on our waterways. Too many nutrients in the water – known as eutrophication – encourages the excessive growth of large aquatic plants such as lakeweed, slimy films (think didymo or rock snot) and phytoplankton. Especially in summer, phytoplankton (or algal) blooms can discolour water and produce toxins that make water undrinkable and unliveable. When the plants eventually die, they drop to the bottom of the lake or river and decompose releasing unpleasant odours and depleting oxygen in the water. This impacts the whole fresh water ecosystem and makes it uninhabitable for the fish, plants and other organisms that live there by reducing oxygen, reducing habitat and loss of food.
Now that you understand the effects, let's look at the cause - remember, we're just looking at the personal use of phosphorous and not taking into account the agricultural impacts. A survey of the 270 households in the Lake Okareka community of Rotorua by the Rotorua District Council (RDC) estimated their dishwashers and washing machines are still flushing 142kg of phosphate a year.
Again, what does this matter?
Well, one kilogram of phosphate can result in the growth of up to 700kg of unwanted aquatic algae!
Just think about that for a minute.
Councils currently have to treat waste water to reduce phosphate entering fresh water systems but this costs money and removal is incomplete. For instance, Palmerston North spends over $500,000 each year removing phosphate (using aluminium sulphate), so there is a real cost to the taxpayer for those clean dishes.
How can we reduce our impact?
The good news is - very easily! By changing the products that you use on a day to day basis will actually make a difference. Here are the products that I use:
Eco Planet make fantastic products that are plant based, fully biodegradable and less harmful to the environment. All of their products are phosphate free with no nasty additives. They were also the first to introduce the eco-friendly cardboard container for laundry detergent - which I love! I avoid plastic and plastic bottles at any opportunity that I can.
There are obviously more options for you to chose from than just Eco Planet including Earthwise and Ecostore just to name a couple.
So the next time you're stocking up on your cleaning products - even though you may think buying eco-friendly isn't worth the few extra dollars and may just be a "marketing scheme" - please know that by switching to environmentally friendly products, you'll actually be making a direct difference to the health of our lakes and rivers!