ERA CASE STUDY: Do compact detergents significantly reduce environmental effects?

How can detergent manufacturers ensure that they are providing the best products to consumers and at the same time do their part for the environment? The answer lies in continuously developing new and improved cleaning technologies. P&G have tried over the last decades to further develop laundry detergents that perform better as well as having a reduced impact on the environment. P&G launched the first compact detergents in the early nineties. Since then, more compacted detergents have been introduced in many regions across multiple forms such as concentrated powder and liquid detergents, powder tablets (drytabs) as well as gel and liquid tablets (liquitabs).

We can explore the effects that these “new” detergents have on the environment by asking two questions.

  • Did the introduction of compact (1992) and super compact detergents (1998) mean that the detergent ingredients in the “newer” more innovative products reduce environmental impact when compared to regular “big-box” powders (1988) ?
  • After washing, all the ingredients that make up the product are released into public sewage system, and after treatment in wastewater treatment plants, into the environment. If we consider the environmental risk associated with each ingredient, is the entire product still safer for the environment?”

To answer these questions and to show the change in the environmental profiles of detergents from 1988 to 1998, P&G performed an environmental risk assessment on three of their detergents. These were a traditional (‘big box’), a compact and a super compact powder: Ariel Regular (1988), Ariel Ultra (1992) and Ariel Futur (1998).

  • The “Risk Quotient”: PEC and PNEC

    In 1998, P&G performed an environmental risk assessment (ERA) on three P&G detergents: Ariel
    If PEC is below PNEC, the ingredients can be safely used in a detergent. Regular (1988), Ariel Ultra (1992) and Ariel Futur (1998) in the Netherlands and Sweden.
    In nearly all European countries, the chemicals and detergents end up in wastewater treatment plants, where bacteria start degrading all organic molecules, including detergent ingredients.

    The ERA allowed us to assess the safety of the product ingredients for the environment. It determines the probability that an adverse effect will occur in the environment after exposure to an ingredient. Therefore we compared two things. The expected concentration that will occur in the environment following the use of a particular ingredient, this is known as Predicted Environmental Concentration (PEC), and the concentration below which there is no effect on the environment is also determined. This is known as the Predicted No-Effect Concentration (PNEC). This results in a “risk quotient” where the ratio of the PEC is taken with respect to the PNEC. After making adjustments that account for any uncertainties we have in the analysis, whenever the “risk quotient” is below 1, the risk is then deemed acceptable.

    To learn more about the Risk Assessment approach, visit our safety pages on

  • The results of the ERA

    First and foremost it is important to note that the ERA clearly shows that all our ingredients when released at levels under use conditions are safe for the environment regardless of the detergent formulation.
    The mean risk quotients show the lower environmental impact.
    For all ingredients used in the 1988, 1992 and 1998 detergents, the calculated risk quotients were always well below 1. This means that the environmental effects are considered to be negligible and therefore safe to use. This was true for both the Swedish and the Dutch products for the years indicated. Risk quotients in the Netherlands were not really affected with the use of compacts in 1992. In Sweden there was a small increase in risk quotient despite a clear decrease in detergent consumption. This was due to the higher level of cleaning agents in compacts compared to traditional powders. There was a sharp decline in risk quotients with the use of super compacts in 1998 in both countries, which was related to the lower detergent consumption as well as the introduction of a number of new ingredients.

    Take a look at the whole detergent
    During stakeholder reviews, P&G was asked to look at the results assuming full additivity to get an indication of the risk profiles for the full product. Although there is today no scientific consensus for assuming that individual ingredients are additive in terms of toxicity (since the mode of action of different chemicals can be very different), we agreed to do it to answer one of the most frequently asked questions by our external partners: “what is the effect of the ingredients when mixed together and released into the environment?”.

    To answer this we assumed the effects of the different ingredients would be additive and subsequently added up the risk quotients for all the ingredients that made up each product. This calculation is equivalent to a product score, similar to the approach used in the EU ecolabel criteria for detergents. The results are displayed in the graph:
    The risk quotient for compact powders is well below 1 and getting lower, even assuming additivity.
    Super compact detergents have the lowest potential impact for the environment when compared to the compacts from 1992 and the traditional “big-box” powders of 1988. There was no risk that an adverse effect would occur as in both the Netherlands and Sweden the risk quotients were below one for each of the three years. Data clearly shows an overall improvement after the development of compacts and super compacts as the sum of the risk quotients decreased over the 10 year period (60% in the Netherlands and almost 40% in Sweden).

  • Conclusions of the ERA

    It was clear that when we assumed that the mode of action for all our ingredients was additive, our detergents had a risk quotient well below 1 in both the Netherlands and Sweden. It was interesting to note that in the space of 10 years, the risk quotient was reduced by half in both countries. This was as a result of lower overall consumption of detergents since the introduction of compacts and super compacts. In fact, as less detergent is needed for every wash, it follows that less chemicals are released into the environment. Among the things that have changed during the years is that consumers have a new attitude to pre-washing. Improved washing technology and a more efficient washing process has also contributed to the lower risk quotients that were observed.
    Compact detergents are more environmentally sustainableMoreover, when the new compact detergents were compared to the regular powders of 1988, they were found to be more weight efficient. We showed that they have a better cleaning performance while simultaneously producing a 50% reduction in the amount of detergent needed per wash. There are significant environmental benefits that include less emission of chemicals into the environment and smaller packaging.

    What about differences in results between the Netherlands and Sweden?
    The difference in risk quotient between the two countries was a result of the difference in the domestic water quality. The water in Sweden contains less calcium and magnesium ions making it “softer” than the water in the Netherlands. This means for the consumer in Sweden, less detergent is needed to provide the same washing performance. It is interesting to note that if we assumed the same water hardness and dosing for both countries, the results of our ERA become very similar.

  • References

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