A majority of popular detergent brands -- Cascade, Sun Light, Electrasol and even Western Family -- are brimming with phosphates. Starting July 1, retailers in Spokane and Whatcom Counties will be banned from selling residential dishwasher detergents with phosphate levels greater than 0.5 percent. The phosphate levels of many dishwasher detergents hover around a full 5 percent.
The ecological damage from phosphates comes long after the last dish has been dried and put away. The phosphates swirl down the dishwasher drains, through the pipes and sewage treatment process, and eventually end up in the Spokane River or Lake Spokane (also known as Long Lake). The problem isn't that phosphates directly kill marine life, but that they promote the wrong kinds.
Phosphate, a fertilizer, feeds plants and algae. The higher the phosphate levels, the more algae flourish. While turning rivers into something resembling the Swamp Thing's summer home, algae carry consequences more problematic than simple aesthetics. When those algae decompose, they drain precious oxygen from the water, says Jani Gilbert, a Department of Ecology spokeswoman. "Because of the high levels of phosphorous, there isn't enough dissolved oxygen for the fish to breathe, so we're seeing a decline in the fishery," Gilbert says.
According to Ecology, about 10 percent to 12 percent of the phosphorous traveling through wastewater treatment plants comes from dishwasher detergent. In 2006, Gov. Christine Gregoire signed House Bill 2322 to outlaw the distribution of phosphate dishwasher detergents. Rep. Timm Ormsby (D-Spokane), who introduced the bill, said the phosphate ban for dishwasher detergent was an extension of a 1993 ban on phosphates in laundry detergent.
Both bans only apply to consumer products, and exclude commercial and industrial detergents. Ormsby explained that with the yards of laundry and thousands of dishes companies have to do, it would be difficult to meet their massive quotas without phosphate detergents. The goals for low phosphate levels in rivers, Ormsby said, can be met by merely banning phosphates in consumer detergents. In 2010, the ban goes statewide, and other states, like Maryland and Virginia, will follow suit with bans of their own.
So what happens to outlawed detergents after they've been banished from Spokane?
Doug Titus is director of purchasing for URM stores, a wholesaler that distributes to Yoke's, Super 1 and Rosauers. He says that when a store wants to get rid of products, it will often return them to URM. URM trucks them to a reclaim center in Portland -- a sort of Island of Misfit Toys for rejected products. Since there often isn't anything actually wrong with the returned products, Titus says some of the food is given to food banks, and some of the other products are salvaged to discount markets.
In this case, however, URM doesn't want the detergent back. Gathering them back would be too costly and inconvenient for just a few bottles of detergent, Titus says.
So stores like Rosauers are left with two main options. Sell 'em or pass 'em.
Rosauers hasn't purchased any phosphate detergents since June 1, says Don Whittaker, director of grocery and Huckleberry's for Rosauers Supermarkets. For now, the remaining phosphate detergents are on a typical closeout discount, Whittaker says. All phosphate detergents must go, literally. Ideally for Rosauers, the last package of phosphate detergent will sell by June 30. The few packages that don't get sold will simply be passed off, hot-potato style, to stores unencumbered by such regulations.
"They'll be transferred to other stores outside Spokane County," Whittaker says.
In a way, Rosauers has an advantage: Rosauers runs natural-food store Huckleberry's, which Whittaker says has never carried phosphate-ridden detergent. The brands Huckleberry's does stock -- Seventh Generation, Wave, Ecover and Planet -- are now headed to Rosauers. "We moved quickly to make sure that consumers have a lot of items to choose from," Whittaker says.
Gilbert says that while consumers may not like losing their favorite brands, in the end, the loss is worth getting rid of the icky green goo in our rivers. "Hopefully what they'll find is that their dishes are getting just as clean, and they'll have a sense that they're doing something for the river,"