South African detergents are P-free! Why the big secret?

30 June 2011

It has this week come to light that Unilever, South Africa’s largest manufacturer and supplier of laundry detergents, replaced the phosphorus in their products with sodium carbonate back during 2010.  Oddly, they did not tell anyone about this until they were interviewed about the topic last week! 

Readers of this blog will have seen my posts arguing for the value of removing phosphorus from detergents and the calls on government and the national regulator to provide the necessary framework for this.  A recent (2010) Water Research Commission study, overseen by a representative from Unilever, completed its findings at about the time the change from phosphorus to sodium carbonate was taking place.  Nobody told the project team about this impending change, the report was produced and readers will have seen the DWA Ministers responses in the press and in Parliament, all about a year or so ago.

Now, all of a sudden, it transpires that all the work and effort to bring this about was not necessary.  The phosphorus issue is a big one globally, insofar as protection of our surface waters is concerned.  At the World Water Week last year they had a whole session on the fact that P is becoming a global crisis (because of its scarcity) and that the world had unknowingly passed the Phosphorus Tipping Point.

The fact that Unilever chose to make this huge change, so apparently covertly, is curious in the extreme, despite the huge benefits that are likely to accrue.  It would have been so useful if they could have announced this so that measures could be put in place to track the impact of the change, but they inexplicably chose not to.

On the (big) plus side, South Africa has made a huge step forward to protect our water resources.  I am sure that Water Affairs will be glad that they no longer need to insist on the removal of phosphorus from detergents!

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