Don’t blame your washing machine (or your dishwasher)

Have you noticed over the past several years that it’s harder to get your laundry as clean as it used to be? I know I have. Recently, I had a problem with my towels. No matter how I washed them I couldn’t get rid of the moldy smell that is so common to basement dwellers. I stumbled across an article, on an economics blog of all places, that shed some light on why it is harder to clean stuff. I’ve noticed more and more laundry detergents are claiming to be phosphate free. I never thought about it much, but it turns out that’s why it’s tougher to get stuff clean.

It’s my understanding that phosphates act as the scrubbers in detergent. More and more places are passing laws against having them in detergents, so they must be really bad for the environment, right? Actually, it’s the opposite problem, phosphates are too good for the environment. They make excellent fertilizer, things grow like gangbusters with the stuff. The problem is that if you put too much of it into streams, ponds, etc, the algae can go berserk and end up killing the fish. So various states have started to pass laws banning them from household products. As is so often the case, it isn’t really clear that phosphates from detergents are to blame for the increased algae growth. Agricultural use is much more intensive, and there’s always the possibility of the phosphates occurring naturally. If you’re on a sewer system, phosphates should be filtered out in any case. The days of raw sewage being dumped into waterways is over. In the meantime, we have trouble getting things clean.

Even though it is difficult to buy detergent with phosphates in it, it is really easy to add it manually. I picked up a box of Trisodium Phosphate under the Savogran brand at Home Depot. It’s in the painting supplies department. Usually TSP is used as a heavy duty cleaner for paint prep. A dilute bleach/TSP combo is supposed to do wonders as a general cleaning solution. I bought the small box for 4 or 5 bucks, it should last quite a while. After looking around, it seems as though all you need is a half teaspoon per wash load. That’s all I used and my towels are actually clean! Yay for not having smelly towels!

If you’re still worried about the environmental impact, think about this.. TSP is also used as a food additive. It is far safer than anything else I found in the paint department, that’s for sure. It’s big impact is that it makes things grow too well. Personally, I’m not convinced that it’s any more dangerous than any other type of detergent. Even if you are worried, using it once in a while is certainly no worse than most other household chemicals. I say, let there be clean clothes and dishes!

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