Like the nearly simultaneous release of Deep Impact and Armageddon, Chemical Engineering News also ran a cover story last week about the expunging of phosphates from dishwasher detergents. (You can read my version of the story here.)

The CEN story, by Michael McCoy, is great stuff. Among the points it hammers home are (1) Why we used phosphates in the first place, (2) How innovation is likely to change detergents in the future; and (3) What the environmental trade-offs of going phosphate-free are likely to be. Samples:

Phosphates are very effective, available in multiple forms, compatible in liquid and solid formulations, and cost-effective. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution,” acknowledges Gary Dee, business director for personal and home care at BASF’s North American care chemicals business. . . . In addition to phosphonates, chemical companies are promoting a host of other ingredients aimed at helping detergent manufacturers bridge the phosphate gap. Chelating agents, dispersant polymers, surfactants, and enzymes are all being bandied about as the key to achieving phosphatelike performance in ADW detergents. “The palette of available technologies is changing almost daily,” the formulation expert says. “Everybody is looking for the next miracle ingredient.” He says he tries to keep an open mind but cautions that a lot of “fu fu dust” is being promoted by corporate marketing departments. . . .

A good deal of the research on miracle ingredients, says CEN, is centered on polymers. Which presents a problem because “Biodegradability has long been a weakness of detergent polymers, which are effective in small quantities but don’t degrade well in the sewage treatment process.”

And interestingly enough, super-green Europe is still on the phosphate bandwagon:

Henkel’s European laundry detergents are already phosphate-free, but its ADW detergents contain as much as 40% phosphate, Müller-Kirschbaum says. He sees them as environmentally superior to phosphate-free formulas because they don’t require as many polymers and other nondegradable ingredients. Moreover, ADW detergents account for only 6% of phosphorus emissions to Europe’s rivers and lakes. “We think phosphate-containing formulas are the most sustainable formulas,” he says.

The solution, of course, is that we should all be using Mr. Sparkle.