Dirty cleaning products

The hidden, non-biodegradable ingredients in cleaning products we pour down the drain

Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod

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Published: 3 August 2021

This Article was Written by: Katie Hill - My Green Pod

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In its latest guide on ethical cleaning products, Ethical Consumer highlights a ‘complete lack of clarity for consumers’ across the industry on the use of non-biodegradable and poorly degradable ingredients hidden inside products.

Researchers investigated, scored and ranked the ethical and environmental record of 70 popular cleaning products across the washing up liquid, laundry detergent and dishwasher detergent markets.

The criteria used to assess companies’ ethical rankings included plastic packaging, palm oil, animal testing, carbon management practices and hidden ingredients such as microplastics, liquid polymers and surfactants.

The ethical watchdog recently updated its criteria on microplastics and liquid polymers after a report by CodeCheck, published last year, highlighted concerns about the non-biodegradable substances remaining in our bodies and the ecosystem for years to come, with unknown consequences.  

Legal loopholes for ‘biodegradable’

‘Surface-active agents’ (surfactants) are the main active ingredient in detergents. They work by keeping dirt suspended in the water.

EU and UK law requires that surfactants used in domestic detergents must biodegrade with oxygen present and break down by 60% within 28 days.

However, these rules do not apply to other common ingredients, which can include liquid polymers or microplastics.

‘The long-term effects of non-biodegradable polymers remaining in our environment are unknown, but we could avoid using them.



‘We understand the complexities of operating in this climate, but we really need companies in the cleaning product industry to set the precedent here; to invest in research, and look further than what’s defined in UK or EU laws when compiling ingredients. Liquid polymers are slipping through the net – and straight down our drains.’

RUTH STRANGE
Ethical Consumer researcher

A call for transparency

While the law catches up with ongoing scientific research into the long-term environmental and health implications of non-biodegradable substances, researchers felt that cleaning brands should be more transparent with customers.

Researchers suggested printing a clear statement on their use of these ingredients to provide as much clarity as possible to consumers on their current policy, plus any work being undertaken to find better alternatives. Where this was missing or inadequate, companies were marked down.

Microplastics and liquid polymers

Brands that were found to use liquid polymers in their cleaning products are Ecozone, Fill Refill, Smol and SC Johnson, owner of Ecover and Method.

Thee was no clear statement found about microplastics and liquid polymers on cleaning products from Astonish, ecoLiving, EcoVibe, McBride (Surcare), Prism (Eco-Max) and Procter & Gamble (Ariel, Bold, Daz, Fairy). No statement was found on ATTITUDE, Easy or Splosh cleaning products.

‘Only with an amendment of the detergent regulation we can ensure transparency for all products: We need laws that require the full declaration of INCI on detergents so we can avoid products with persistent ingredients. Because once they are in our environment, they accumulate and can not be removed.



‘If we as consumers are informed and choose better products, we can influence the market landscape towards greener products.’

DR RUTA ALMEDOM
CodeCheck’s head of science

Companies that got a best rating for microplastics and liquid polymers were Bentley Organic, Bide, Bio-D, ecoleaf, Friendly Soap, Faith in Nature, Greenscents, Miniml, Planet Detox, SESI, Sodasan and Sonett.

In response to Ethical Consumer’s research, Miniml has decided to discontinue products that contained polymers.

Palm oil in cleaning products

Look for brands that commit to sourcing palm oil sustainably or avoid it completely. This year Ethical Consumer has placed even more stringent requirements on large scale companies (>£100m annual turnover) to meet its ‘best’ rating criteria, as palm oil is such a public concern.

For a company to score well, criteria they must meet include the certification of all palm oil and derivatives, the publication of all its mills, at least 50% of total palm ingredients to be Segregated or Identity Preserved and the annual publication of an updated grievance list.

Procter & Gamble, Reckitt Benckiser Group PLC and Unilever Home & Personal Care Division scored ‘worst’ rating in the palm oil category.

Plastic packaging

Companies and consumers should prioritise refilling and reusing their cleaning products.

Of all the ethical issues surrounding household cleaning products, the most positive development over the last few years has been in plastic packaging.

Progressive companies are responding with plastic-free or plastic-lite household cleaning solutions.

Many companies, including mainstream ones, have started to increase the recycled plastic content of their bottles and packaging. Some companies are even using plant-based plastic.

While both of these may be better than using virgin plastic, the more sustainable solution is to produce less single-use plastic. Refills are now widely available.

Animal testing

Only buy from companies that ensure ingredients they source aren’t tested on animals.

While the testing of ‘finished’ household products on animals has been banned in the EU since 2015, the testing of ingredients is still allowed.

The strongest cleaning products in this category were companies whose entire product range was assured by Cruelty-Free International (Leaping Bunny), PETA (Beauty without Bunnies) or Vegan Society.

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