Detergents and the environment: A clean lifestyle for a dirty environment

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Written by: Demi O’Halloran

We all like to have a clean house whether we do it ourselves or pay someone else to – it makes our lives feel in order. Sometimes we clean our houses or do laundry as procrastination instead of more important things (like university assignments). 

Detergents are thought of as necessities, we have a different kind for every chore these days. Detergents are used for laundry, our cars to what we wash ourselves with. This has created a forever growing industry1. However, have you ever thought about implicants on the environment?

Detergents are a chemical based substance produced to rid items of unwanted grime/dirt. Since detergents have become more affordable, we are living in an era where we sacrifice not only our own health but also the wellbeing of the environment in order to have clean lifestyles2.

Synthetic detergents were first produced during WW2 in Germany to replace animal fats used in soaps as supply was scarce 3. From then on, they were and still are relied on heavily in households in day to day chores.

Although synthetic detergents changed the game of cleaning forever, their chemical make-up has caused growing concerns for the environment worldwide 1,3,4.

We have many household chores, take for example laundry and washing dishes. Detergents used in these have no other option than to go through drains and leach into the environment, in-turn causing vast effects. Chemicals in detergents have properties that reduce oxygen atoms in the water1,3,5,7. This causes excessive amounts of rich nutrients in the water, suffocating aquatic life and disrupting the natural environment. Germany’s summer in 1959 was a dry one, and as a result detergent was noticeable in the environment with rivers literally foaming. Solid layers blocked canal ways in-turn blocking all chance of aquatic flora photosynthesising and effecting drinking supply from soil infiltration3.

Change for a cleaner future:

In NZ we have the lowest consumption of synthetic detergents when compared with countries of similar living standards. Although detergents aren’t causing huge issues here with water/environment pollution, it still contributes6.

Do you buy your detergent based on scent? Instead of smelling that fragrant frangipani, you’re probably smelling formaldehyde which is linked to cancer in animals8. In the 1970’s, NZ government passed a law to aid the environment where detergents sold in NZ must be at least 80% biodegradable6.

Detergent companies are looking at alternate ‘eco-friendly’ options to meet demand of conscious consumers, safety and the environment5,6,7. Most of these detergents sold here have eco-friendly packaging. There’s also refill stores like ‘Good House Keeping’ here in Wellington. Some companies have turned to zero-waste options to still meet customer demand but not at the environments cost. An example is ‘Soapnuts’ which are a fruit that contains natural soap. Once no longer usable (3-4 washes) they can be composted, a win-win for the environment.

Anyone born in the future would be lucky to see unpolluted waters, so next time you do your washing think about what you are pouring out into the environment not just your washing machine.


1. Zoller, U., & Sosis, P. (2008). Handbook of Detergents, Part F: Production (Vol. 142). CRC Press.

2. Liu, X., Lao, X. Q., Wong, C. C.-Y., Tan, L., Zhang, Z., Wong, T. W., … Yu, I. T. S. (2016). Frequent use of household cleaning products is associated with rhinitis in Chinese children. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, 138(3), 754-760.e6.

3. Schwuger, M. J. (1996). Detergents and the Environment (Vol. 65). CRC Press. Retrieved from

4. Showell, M. (2017). Powdered Detergents. (Vol.71). Routledge.

5. Zoller, U. (2004). Handbook of Detergents, Part B: Environmental Impact (Vol. 121). CRC Press.

6. Representatives, N. Z. P. H. of. (1972). Parliamentary Debates (Vol. 379). Retrieved from

7. Reichard, E. G., Hauchman, F. S., & F, A. M. S. (2000). Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Drinking Water Risk Assessment and Management. IAHS.

8. Winter, R. (2007). A Consumerýs Dictionary of Household, Yard and Office Chemicals: Complete Information About Harmful and Desirable Chemicals Found in Everyday Home Products, Yard Poisons, and Office Polluters. iUniverse.