How Green

Why Aren't Your Dishes Getting Clean? New Environmental Laws

They just don't make 'em like they used to. Dishwashing detergents, that is. Really.

Thanks to environmental protection laws passed in 16 states, dish detergent manufacturers have been forced to remove powerful cleansing agents called phosphates from their formulas nationwide. The result? Detergents that don't clean, reported Tampa Bay Online.

Local appliance repairman Don DiChristopher told the news agency that technicians were out in droves to frustrated customers who had already thrown out several sets of dishes or replaced their machines altogether, unable to get dishes clean.

"Holy cow, we got bombarded, our phone literally rang off the hook with calls," DiChristopher said, noting that his service received hundreds of calls shortly after the switchover to phosphate-free cleansers was completed in July. "We started turning down repair calls."

But never fear: A healthy "black market" of sorts exists for full-strength dishwashing liquids with the chemical. Thanks to a loophole in the eco-rules, the phosphate ban doesn't apply to commercial facilities like restaurants or hotels, so bulk packages of detergent are available at supply companies -- who sell their products on eBay, of course. Really.

The problem is phosphates. Sodium tripolyphosphate was something of a wonder ingredient, helping to remove food and grease, maintain pH, inhibit corrosion and more; it made up as much as 35% of certain detergents, explains the Chemical & Engineering News.

Phosphates are also a potent fertilizer, leading to massive algae blooms in rivers and lakes. By removing phosphate from detergents, those algal blooms that were choking waterways may be cut down -- but so is the cleaning power of today's detergents. Without them, the elements that make water "hard" (magnesium, calcium and aluminum) build up.

Reformulated powders and gels from Proctor & Gamble, whose Cascade brands dominate the industry,are among the cleaning agents being slammed by unhappy customers. Comment pages that a year ago were filled with praise for Cascade’s effectiveness now brim with invective from unsatisfied users.

Typical is a consumer from Rose City, Mich., who wrote last month that “I shudder when I see the name Cascade. This product never should have hit the market!” Or Gerry from northwestern New Jersey, who wrote on Dec. 30: “I would like to be reimbursed for the 9.68-lb box of useless powder—not to mention the cost of replacing my coffee cups and glasses! You’ve permanently lost another customer.”

Some consumers are even buying the good stuff online -- and hoarding it, said Tampa Bay Online.

"This is the stockpile I bought before the changeover," Yezak confesses with a hushed voice while shopping the cleaning supply aisle at a Walmart Neighborhood store in Tampa. "It actually works – not like the new stuff."  

Really.