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Phosphates: Well Known Hardness Sequestrants
The most famous of the standard laundry detergent ingredients is the common phosphate hardness sequestrant.
Every one knows to avoid phosphates in laundry detergent and soaps. But, as you can see these compounds are just the tip of the iceberg, when it comes to all of the dangers that have incorporated themselves into our commercial laundry detergents. Many states have banned or restricted the use of phosphates because when they are released into the environment in the wrong manner they accumulate in the water systems. Phosphates cause damage to environmental systems by unbalancing the nutrient levels in ecological systems and giving rise to algae blooms and similar problems. In the days of massive laundry detergent phosphate use, high levels of phosphate in the water system resulted in the formation of enormous algae blooms in water ways which in turn led to the massive depletion of oxygen in many lakes and bodies of water which choked out the natural life in these places. Phosphates dissolved in water systems can also poison fish directly and for the most part have been out-lawed for use in laundry detergents.
However, if you are re-using your laundry water and irrigating your garden with the used water, unless you have a very sandy soil, you probably need not worry about phosphate use in your laundry detergent. The clay element of soil rapidly adsorbs phosphate molecules, and plants require a good supply of this compound for optimum growth. In this situation using phosphates to soften your laundry wash water could be adventitious even from an environmental point of view.
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Softening Your Laundry Wash Water with a Synthetic - Are You Sure You Want To?
EDTA (ethylene-diamino-tetra-acetate) is a synthetic water softener. It is used in a detergent mixture to provide the same function that phosphates previously provided. these molecules tie up mineral ions such as Mg ++ and Ca ++ which are present in the wash water. This leaves the surfactants free to do their dirt-dissolving work, no longer likely to be disabled by the hard water mineral ions. However, EDTA does not degrade readily even in a well run sewage plant. As a result, EDTA does accumulate in the environment particularly in the bottoms of waterways. In locations such as these, it it has been noted to re-dissolve toxic heavy metals which were otherwise rendered unavailable by the clay substances that settle in these areas. The end result of such an interaction is an increased level of heavy metals in our water supply, something that we would prefer to avoid.
EDTA is a synthetic molecule, and this brings with it other risks as well that may not be yet discovered or understood. At the very least, synthetic molecules carry with them the risk of industrial contamination with trace impurities, some of which may be highly toxic in nature.
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Washing Soda - The Green Laundry Detergent Hardness Solution
Washing soda is the traditional water softener or in other words hardness mineral sequestrant. Most natural detergents use washing soda in place of other less benign hardness ion sequesterants (water softeners). Washing soda (sodium carbonate) is a very simple compound, It is similar to baking soda (sodium bicarbonate). Washing soda is much more reactive than baking soda, however, and must be handled with care. The shortfall with washing soda is that it adds sodium to the waste water (only half as much as baking soda would have added which is better). However, compared to the prospect of adding a persistent environmental toxin to the waste water such as is the case with the hardness sequestrants phosphate and EDTA, the use of washing soda as a wash water softener is preferable.