Laundry detergent is one of those household essentials that many of us buy without really considering its impact. Yes, it usually comes in a plastic bottle and probably contains some weird chemicals, but we consume it so slowly that our choices can’t make THAT big of a difference, right? While your personal laundry detergent choice isn’t going to stop climate change or eradicate the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, our individual decisions do shape the products and initiatives that companies invest in. And with over 30 billion loads of laundry done in North America annually, our collective decisions have the potential to make a big difference. So, we’ve outlined the detergent options on the market so that you can make the best choice for yourself.
The ingredients in detergent can be put into four categories that each serve a specific purpose: surfactants, builders, bleaches and enzymes.
Surfactant molecules are kind of like the post-game cleaning staff at Madison Square Garden who pick up all the trash after the fans have left. They attach themselves to filth that is released into the washing machine’s water and carry the filth away when the water is drained.
Builders are like the concert security ushering all the fans out after a show so that the cleaning staff can do their thing. Imagine janitorial staff trying to clean an arena with a packed crowd? Not possible. Like janitors, surfactants need everyone gone to do their job, which is why builders remove minerals such as calcium and magnesium from the water so that the surfactant molecules can work efficiently.
Bleach and enzymes are like the actual cleaning agents that the staff uses to get rid of gunk in the arena. Bleach gets rid of organic stains (such as coffee), and enzymes eradicate grease, protein, and starch stains (such as olive oil, milk, and flour).
Some of these components can be made of chemical compounds that in their most harmful forms are problematic for our health and the health of marine life. For example, surfactant molecules can get into the gills of fish and inhibit them from efficiently drawing oxygen from the water. If that’s not horrifying enough, many of these chemical compounds are considered proprietary trade secrets, so companies are not required by law to disclose them on detergent packaging. This makes it nearly impossible for consumers to know what they’re buying. That’s where we come in.
CONVENTIONAL LIQUID DETERGENT
Liquid detergent is the most popular detergent on the market and can be the most affordable option, but due to its weight, it uses lots of fuel and water in shipping. Liquid detergent is usually packaged in PET plastic or HDPE plastic bottles that, at scale, contribute to about 2.6 million tons of PET and HDPE landfill waste every year.
That said, if conventional liquid detergent works best for you, we’ve got options. Tide Purclean is relatively easy to find and is now sold in Tide’s new “eco-box” that contains only 50% of the amount of plastic that their conventional bottles require. ATTITUDE Hypoallergenic Laundry Detergent is also a great option, though a bit expensive at $0.37 per load.
CONCENTRATED LIQUID DETERGENT
Concentrated liquid detergent is the same concept as conventional liquid detergent, but it is more efficiently formulated. Since a concentrated formula can contain two to three times the number of loads per bottle, it requires much less plastic, water, and shipping fuel compared to conventional liquid detergent. Our favorite concentrated liquid detergents are Biokleen Free & Clear Laundry Detergent and ECOS 2x Concentrated Laundry Detergent.
Powder detergent is great, especially if it’s sold in cardboard boxes that cut down on plastic waste. Keep in mind that liquid detergent is a better choice if you wash your laundry on cold cycles, as powder can leave residue if it doesn’t fully dissolve in cold water. If you’re going to go with powder detergent, our favorite is Biokleen Free & Clear Detergent Powder.
Pods are very convenient, and great if you’re prone to over-using detergent as they are pre-measured. However, they are usually a more expensive option and are often packaged in plastic PET containers that drive up the carbon footprint of the product overall. Pods sold in a PET container have about twice the global warming potential compared to pods sold in a flexible pouch. The best packaging option is cardboard, which is what Dropps Laundry Detergent Pods are packaged in. Seventh Generation Laundry Detergent Packs are another great option, though they’re more expensive.
Detergent tablets are conveniently portioned like pods are, which we love. Our favorite tablets are from Blueland, an awesome company that is working to cut down on single-use plastic. Seventh Generation recently came out with a line of zero plastic cleaning solutions that includes laundry detergent tablets. We were really excited about these, but unfortunately, they’ve received bad reviews across the board. Hopefully Seventh Generation modifies the formula in the face of all of the negative feedback, but until then, we don’t recommend these detergent tablets.
Detergent sheets are a new liquid-less option that seems really promising. This new type of detergent has its ingredients packed into a sheet that dissolves in water. It is super light to ship, requiring less fuel. Since they’re liquid-less, they use less water and usually no plastic packaging. Tru Earth reports that the light weight design of their detergent sheets reduces transportation fuel consumption and carbon emissions by 94% compared to the leading liquid and powder detergents. They estimate that if everyone switched to their detergent sheets, annually we would eliminate one billion plastic jugs and save the fuel equivalent of taking 27 million cars off the road for a day.
Soap nuts are dried soap berries used in lieu of detergent. They are a great option from an environmental standpoint, but have received mixed reviews on their ability to remove stains. If you try them, let us know what you think! The most popular option on the market is from Eco Nuts.
We know this is a lot of information, and some of the small brands can be hard to find at your local grocery store or Target. Below, we’ve listed some tips for identifying the best options on the fly. Beyond choosing a detergent free from nasty chemicals, there are decisions you can make at every step of the laundering process to lower your impact. Check out our tips and leave comments if you have any other go-to practices!
Avoid lofty claims such as “odor blaster” or “white reviver”. In general, claims like these usually mean the product is packed with nasty chemicals that harm our health and the health of our marine ecosystem.
Look for the EPA Safer Choice label. This program ensures that the chemicals in a product meet standards for human and environmental health and toxicity. The Safer Choice label indicates that a product is safer for you, your family, your pets, workers’ health, fish, and the environment. The EPA also tests the quality of these products to ensure that they perform as well as conventional products. You can search their site by product here.
Look for detergents made with plant-based ingredients. Harsh chemicals are hard on fabric fibers and will wear them down more quickly than plant-based alternatives.
Only about 30% of laundry detergent bottles end up being recycled in America. Look for paper, cardboard, or recycled plastic packaging to help drive down plastic landfill waste and ocean pollution.
Clean the lint screen in your dryer frequently to encourage efficient air flow.
Line dry your clothing whenever possible. Outdoor line drying is best if you have that option, as it brightens whites and releases wrinkles and odors.
Wash your clothes in cold water to save energy, especially if you don’t have a high-efficiency washer. If you do have a high efficiency washer, the energy savings of washing on cold won’t be very significant.
Invest in an ENERGY STAR washing machine and dryer if you’re able to do so. ENERGY STAR reports that their washers use about 25% less energy and 33% less water than conventional washers. ENERGY STAR dryers use up to 60% less energy than conventional dryers. It is reported that “if every clothes washer purchased in the U.S. was ENERGY STAR certified, we could save more than $3.3 billion each year and prevent more than 19 billion pounds of annual greenhouse gas emissions, equal to the emissions from more than 1.8 million vehicles.” We’re sold.