Laundry detergent might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about your environmental impact.
It’s obvious that washing our clothes to wear again is less wasteful than throwing them away after one wearing! And in order to get clothes clean and fresh, we need to make the water all soapy, so the water-treatment system just has to deal with that, right?
It’s only because I happened to see a magazine ad two decades ago, for what was then an obscure little company called Seventh Generation, that I realized we as consumers can choose laundry detergents made from renewable resources instead of petrochemicals to reduce toxic pollutants in our water!
Wastewater treatment plants focus mainly on controlling harmful bacteria and aren’t very good at removing chemical contaminants, so we need to be responsible about what goes down our drains.1
Water pollution affects not just fish and tadpoles but our own drinking water and everything we eat!
Every food comes from an organism that drank water. A cow who drank polluted water and ate grain that was grown with polluted water inevitably passes on some of those toxins in her milk and meat.
Keeping Earth’s water clean protects ourselves as well as “Nature.”
Choosing Environmentally Friendly Laundry Detergent
After finding that plant-based detergent gets my laundry just as clean and fresh-smelling as petroleum-based detergent, I never turned back! I’ve eagerly tried many different brands of plant-based cleaners–not just for laundry but for dishes, body, and general cleaning–and almost all of them have been very effective.
Making green choices is easier now than ever before in my lifetime! Seventh Generation and other eco-brands are now on the shelves of major chain stores, with many brands offering different scents and other variations to suit everyone’s needs.
The trouble with having a lot of options is that it can get confusing! Sometimes it’s just easier to grab another package of something familiar than to try something new.
Earlier this year, my Facebook feed suddenly was peppered with ads for “laundry strips.” What??
My first reaction was that these were for people too lazy to measure detergent, and probably these strips were just stupidly wasteful . . . although I did notice that all of the several brands I was seeing seemed to be eco-minded . . . I assumed the strips were individually wrapped or peeled off a plastic sheet.
Then I was watching some videos with my daughter, and one of them was preceded by an ad for Tru Earth Eco-Strips. Hey, actually, the packaging looked really minimal and seemed to be just cardboard! The ad was all about reducing plastic pollution, and it had always bothered me that all my plant-based detergents were packaged in ways that involved at least some non-recyclable plastic.
That’s when I asked the Kitchen Stewardship® team if we could get a free sample of laundry strips for me to review. Tru Earth generously sent me 64 Eco-Strips: 32 fragrance-free and 32 “fresh linen” scent! My family put them to the test.
What’s the Best Eco-Friendly Detergent?
There are two big considerations in choosing a detergent that’s easy on the Earth: the detergent itself, and the packaging.
What Is the Environmental Impact of Laundry Detergent?
After cleaning your clothes, laundry detergent is rinsed down the pipe. Most of it goes to a wastewater treatment plant for cleaning before it’s discharged into a river, lake, or ocean–or sent directly to a water treatment plant to be further cleaned up to drinking-water standards. Some of it escapes the system and pours untreated into the natural environment. What floats along with those suds?
Surfactants reduce surface tension, helping to pull dirt off fabric and keep it off until it’s rinsed away. The trouble is that surfactants keep on reducing surface tension long after they’ve left your laundry room and flowed downstream, stripping away fishes’ protective mucus layer that prevents pollutants and parasites from burrowing into their flesh.
Some surfactants also are endocrine disruptors, damaging the hormonal systems of aquatic animals so that they don’t breed successfully.2
Surfactants in our water may be affecting human health and fertility as well, when that contaminated water makes its way back to our taps and beverage-bottling plants.
Parabens are preservatives that persist in the environment and may be linked to endocrine disruption, thyroid problems, and obesity. Although parabens are classified as safe by US regulatory agencies, the correlations between high paraben levels in the body and poor health are worrisome.
Read Katie’s report on parabens and think about whether you want your family, or any of us who live downstream from you, to be the guinea pigs in the “Let’s see how much it takes to be proven toxic” experiment!
Chlorine bleach, added to many laundry detergents as a disinfectant and stain remover, is not as dangerous to the environment as it is to human health: Chlorine residue in our laundry or chlorine fumes in the air when the washing machine is running can aggravate or even cause asthma, as well as irritating our skin and eyes.3
1,4-dioxane is a flammable, explosive, cancer-causing chemical byproduct created as a side effect of a process to reduce the skin-irritating tendencies of harsh chemicals–solving one problem by creating another!
Because it’s not an “ingredient” intentionally added to products, 1,4-dioxane does not have to be disclosed on labels, but laboratory testing has detected it in many laundry detergents as well as shampoos and shower gels.4, 5
Many synthetic detergents also kill fish by damaging their gills and/or have effects that are non-lethal but unhealthy: slowed growth, difficulty eating, and sensory damage. Invertebrate aquatic animals like plankton (a major food source for fish) are extremely sensitive to detergents.6
Optical brighteners are added to many detergents even though they have no cleaning power whatsoever! They just make white clothes more bluish than yellowish so that they look “brighter.”
Quite a variety of toxic chemicals have this eye-fooling effect . . . and also have other effects on humans and animals, like skin and eye irritation, cancer, liver damage, decreased heart rate, difficulty breathing, and birth defects.7
Phosphates are the detergent ingredient I heard worries about as a child in the 1970s and 1980s. Phosphates stimulate the growth of algae in water, throwing the ecosystem out of balance by depleting oxygen in the water so fish can’t breathe.8
However, phosphates in laundry detergent have been banned in most states and countries, so they’re easy to avoid now! The main source of phosphates in our water now is fertilizer that washes off farm fields, so that’s another good reason to support regenerative agriculture. . . .
So, the ingredients in our detergent can cause big trouble downstream, making it harder to find safe and tasty fish and seaweed to eat and impacting our oceans’ oxygen production.9
But the contents of that detergent bottle, bag, or box aren’t the only issue. . . .
Life Cycle of a Laundry Detergent Package
Let’s say you buy liquid laundry detergent in a plastic bottle. That bottle was made from petroleum–a limited, non-renewable resource–and a lot of fuel was burned to drill for the petroleum, truck it to a processing plant, operate a bunch of big machines to convert it into plastic, truck the plastic nurdles to a factory, and operate some more big machines to dye the plastic an appealing color and form it into a bottle.
After you’ve emptied it, the bottle is “recyclable”–you can put it out for curbside collection in many places–but plastic recycling is inefficient and often just doesn’t happen.10
Many detergent bottles are hard to recycle because the spout and/or cap are made from a different type of plastic than the main bottle.
What if you buy detergent in a plastic pouch? That’s less plastic per load of laundry, but the pouch usually isn’t recyclable. It’s just going into the landfill forever. Some of those pouches are made of layers of different kinds of plastic, so they’ll be difficult to recycle even if we start mining landfills in the future!
Powdered detergent in a cardboard box might seem like a better solution, but is that “cardboard” box really recyclable or compostable? Look closely!
Some boxes are lined with plastic to protect the powder from humid air that would make it clump together. Some boxes have a plastic strip that you pull to open the box, and it leaves behind a strip of plastic along either edge of the opening. Some boxes have a plastic handle on top. Some have a plastic or metal pouring spout embedded in the side. A person could put a lot of effort into tearing apart a detergent box to separate the recyclable material, and could get hurt on the sharp edges! Most people aren’t going to go through the trouble.
Some of Seventh Generation’s liquid detergents now are packaged in the Ecologic paper bottle, which is a bottle-shaped outer shell made of recycled paper/cardboard around a lightweight plastic bag of detergent with a plastic spout at the top.
I’ve tried this packaging, and it works fine but is complicated to break down: Pull the stickers off the bottle and throw them away. Open the cardboard shell and take out the plastic. Put the cardboard in your compost bin or cardboard recycling. Cut the plastic bag off the spout, throw away the spout, rinse the bag (takes a lot of water to get all the detergent off!) and hang it up to dry. Later, put the bag in a plastic-film recycling bin outside a supermarket or Target, not in curbside recycling.
Any of these packages is a way of transporting and storing heavy detergent that takes up a lot of space. A lot of fuel is burned hauling trucks full of these packages across the country! Could there be a better way?
What Are Laundry Strips?
What if you sucked all the water out of the liquid laundry detergent? Then it wouldn’t be so heavy. What if you smashed the powdered laundry detergent into a flat sheet? Then it wouldn’t need such a big package.
My first impression, when I received my sample of laundry strips and took one out of the package, was that it’s like a fruit leather made of laundry detergent. Could that really be true? I wondered what type of binding agents were needed to hold the detergent together in this form that just barely feels soapy to my dry hand.
Tru Earth’s website doesn’t really answer that question, but it did reassure me that the detergent itself is safe for my family and our environment! Tru Earth Eco-Strips are
- free of parabens, chlorine bleach, 1,4-dioxane, and phosphates
- certified hypoallergenic
- not made from or tested on animals
- free of gluten and palm oil
Tru Earth also says its Eco-Strips are 94% lighter weight per laundry load, compared to liquid and powder detergents. If all of the 30 billion laundry loads washed in North America each year were washed with Eco-Strips instead of conventional detergents, the fuel savings and pollution reduction would be equivalent to taking 27 million cars off the road for a day.
Eco-Strips are “readily biodegradable in accordance with OECD 310D.” What does that mean??
Biodegradable–That’s Good, Right?
As a cynical environmentalist, I’ve learned that some things advertised as “biodegradable” actually take decades to decay or require special high-temperature composting facilities. That wouldn’t be the case with this product that dissolves in the washing machine. But does it leave some kind of persistent goo floating in the rinse water?
I answered that question by looking up “OECD 310D.” This biodegradability standard used by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development measures how much a substance breaks down during a 28-day laboratory test.11
I didn’t understand this very well, 30 years after studying chemistry! So I looked for more explanation of how to interpret the classifications resulting from this test.
Turns out that Tru Earth comes down on the greener side of the distinction between two terms that both sound good: inherently biodegradable and readily biodegradable. These are two categories along the continuum of how much a substance breaks down in 28 days. Less than 20% is considered not biodegradable, 20-60% is “inherently biodegradable” meaning we assume it will degrade completely after more time, and 60-100% is “readily biodegradable” meaning it breaks up quickly.12
We want detergents to degrade quickly into harmless molecules that blend back into nature, rather than causing water pollution!
Did you know that essential oils have a shelf life?
Katie here, popping in to tell you that those essential oils that have been sitting in your cabinet for a couple years and are still half full may have expired. Read more about what I learned when researching this topic, and you can even have the handy printable I made to help me remember how long which oils last.
Okay, great, it’s safe for the environment. But what are these strips that melt, possibly leaving some residue on the clothes we wear against our skin, the pillowcases we press against our trusting faces all night, the cloth napkins with which we wipe our mouths?
Tru Earth Eco-Strips and other laundry strips are held together by a “biodegradable supporting matrix” of polyvinyl alcohol (PVA), a synthetic polymer that does not occur in nature but is made in laboratories by dissolving vinyl acetate in methyl alcohol.13
That doesn’t sound like something safe enough to eat, does it? Yet PVA is approved in the United States and the European Union and by the World Health Organization as a food glaze and thickener, as well as a paper coating and yarn strengthener.14, 15 It’s non-toxic and barely absorbed by our digestive tract.16
The Environmental Working Group, known for its high standards for ingredient safety and eco-friendliness, puts PVA in the #1 safest category.17
Although EWG says there isn’t really enough research on whether PVA exposure may be connected to cancer, there is so far no evidence of that connection.
PVA is the same substance used as the outer layer of detergent pods that dissolve in the clothes washer or dishwasher. Grist magazine explained several years ago that the environmental and health concerns related to detergent pods are all about the detergent that’s in them and the bulky plastic packaging, not about the pod itself.18
More recent articles from two other reliable eco-news sources, Treehugger and Life Without Plastic, affirmed the safety of laundry strips.19, 20
Tru Earth Eco-Strips are NOT peeled off a plastic backing; they are NOT individually wrapped; they are NOT in a package that looks like cardboard but turns out to have a plastic layer. The strips are simply placed inside a medium-weight cardboard envelope. The outside layer of the cardboard is glossy paper like a magazine page, not plastic.
Cardboard is made from wood pulp, a renewable resource–and it typically contains some recycled paper, too. Most curbside recycling programs accept cardboard. It also breaks down quickly in even an amateur backyard compost bin, acting as a “brown” material that balances “green” like vegetable scraps to optimize decomposition.
Before disposing of cardboard, you can reuse it for making signs, name tags, drawer dividers, or many kinds of craft projects!
Eco-Strips come in pairs: Two strips make up one sheet, and you tear along the dotted line to separate them. You’ll want to have dry hands when you reach into the package and tear off a strip, because they do begin to melt immediately when they get wet. . . .
RELATED: Soap nuts? An all natural detergent!
Using Tru Earth Eco-Strips: How Well Do They Work?
I read several reviews mentioning that, if your washing machine has a detergent compartment, you’ll need to tear the strip into several smaller pieces to make sure it dissolves completely. My machine doesn’t have a detergent compartment–it’s a classic, simple, top-loading washer, about 25 years old–so I simply dropped the strip into the machine.
The first time I used a laundry strip, I started the water flowing into the machine, put in the laundry, and then placed the strip on top of the laundry right under the water. I could see it melting as the water poured onto it. This is probably the best way to make sure the strip dissolves completely and the detergent gets thoroughly distributed into the water.
However, I got equally good results the times I dropped in the strip more randomly. The one time I purposely put it in the very bottom of the tub at the opposite side from the water inflow, and then put a heavy terry bathrobe right on top of it, I did find a little sort of sticky lint booger-thing on the bathrobe after washing. It wasn’t as messy or hard to remove as the clumps of powder detergent I’ve sometimes seen (when I overloaded the machine or when the detergent had clumped and I didn’t crumble it), and I felt that everything in the load had gotten clean.
Although my washing machine is very large and I generally pack it as full as possible, one strip was enough for every load. I’ve recently been using two scoops per load of Molly’s Suds powder detergent because I wasn’t satisfied with the cleanliness when I only used one scoop in a large load.
RELATED: Molly’s Suds review.
My family tested Tru Earth Eco-Strips in 8 loads of laundry, and in every case the strip worked just as well as our usual detergent. For the first load, we even tried to stain some washcloths on purpose with foods that often stain, like ketchup and soy sauce, and some markers that are supposed to be washable but had stained our clothes before. The strips cleaned them up completely!
I also did “before” and “after” comparisons of some items that happened to be pretty dirty, like my daughter’s dress with chocolate all over it!
A load of dish towels and cloth napkins came out bright and fresh–even some that we’ve had for many years and used heavily–but the terrible stains from blueberry juice got only a little fainter.
My conclusion is that Tru Earth Eco-Strips don’t have unusually good stain-removal power, but they do quite well on organic stains that are relatively fresh, not as well on “sidewalk dirt” that includes stuff like automotive soot, leather dye that soaks into socks when shoes get wet, or old stains that survived previous washings.
Even the unscented strips left clothes smelling clean when they came out of the washing machine. I line-dry all my laundry in our basement, and during a recent spell of damp weather, some of it got a bit muddy-smelling while hanging. That’s why I generally prefer laundry detergent with some lingering fragrance, as long as it’s not too strong. Tru Earth’s “fresh linen” fragrance is pleasant but not overpowering, keeping my clothes smelling mildly soapy/flowery through 48 hours in the basement.
Downsides of Tru Earth Eco-Strips
The main thing that stops me from saying I’ll never buy another jug of liquid laundry detergent again is that laundry strips are more expensive per load than the detergents I’ve been buying. Tru Earth is pricier than some other laundry strips on the market (which I haven’t tried, but which seem to have similarly green credentials) so I’ll compare them, too:
- Tru Earth Eco-Strips are $35.95 for 64 loads = 56 cents per load.
- Earth Breeze (another laundry strip available) are $20 for 60 loads = 33 cents per load.
- Sheets Laundry Club strips are $17.88 for 50 loads = 36 cents per load.
- Lazy Coconuts strips are $14.95 for 48 loads = 31 cents per load.
- Seventh Generation liquid is $12.99 for 53 loads = 24 cents per load.
- Molly’s Suds powder is $13.99 for 70 loads = 20 cents per load. But wait! I’ve been using two scoops per load in my large washing machine, so I must be getting only 35 loads per pouch–that makes it 40 cents per load, similar to the cheaper brands of laundry strips, if they work well enough to use one strip per load!
If laundry strips become more popular, it’s likely that the price will come down and they’ll be more available in stores, not just online. I’ll definitely do another price check when I’m ready to buy more detergent, after my family finishes using this generous free sample!
One issue with the slim cardboard envelope in which Tru Earth (and other brands of laundry strips) are packaged: What if the package gets wet?
Since the strips are designed to dissolve in water, wouldn’t they be easily damaged by even a small amount of moisture soaking through the package? And since the package is cardboard with a glossy exterior but no plastic lining, wouldn’t it easily let moisture soak through? It’s not even sealed along all the edges.
I decided to design an experiment to test this, sacrificing just 2 laundry strips and using a simulated package so that I could keep the real packages to store my remaining strips.
My daughter helped me compare the paperboard items in our recycling bin to the Eco-Strips package, to select paperboard of a similar thickness and exterior glossiness. We chose this butter box, placed 2 strips inside overlapping, folded down all the flaps, and secured them with clear tape.
Then we dipped one side of the packet into a bowl of water for just 5 seconds. Then we opened it and pulled out the strips as quickly as possible.
Our conclusion is that even a brief splash of water will soak right through the cardboard package, and the strips will begin dissolving immediately. The strip that was farther from the wet edge of the package only got mushy along the edge and lightly stuck to the other strip, but the one that got really wet could not be removed intact and left about 10% of itself stuck to the cardboard. You could ruin $35.95 worth of laundry detergent with one careless splash!
But that doesn’t mean Tru Earth ought to be giving us a watertight package with every purchase. There are other ways!
A quick look in our “empty containers we might be able to reuse” pile found one of those big, clear-plastic boxes from fresh spinach–the kind of flimsy, wrong-shaped container that’s not accepted by our local recycling programs. We try not to buy these!
Usually, we get plenty of spinach from our CSA farm, in plastic bags that are reusable and recyclable . . . but when we can’t resist buying supermarket spinach, this big box is great for packing up leftover cookies or crackers after church coffee hour . . . but, of course, we haven’t had any coffee hours during the pandemic. I’m excited that we can repurpose this spinach box to protect our laundry strips from any splashy mishaps in the laundry room!
It’s worth mentioning that powdered laundry detergent also is vulnerable to moisture, even when packed in plastic. Molly’s Suds comes in a plastic pouch with “zip” top, which we always close carefully, yet somehow enough moisture from the ambient air gets into the pouch that sometimes the detergent gets all clumped up. I have to smack the pouch against the side of the machine and lean on it to break up the lumps!
The higher cost and need for an added storage container are downsides, but laundry strips have a lot of advantages:
- saving energy in the process of getting detergent to your home
- convenient pre-measured detergent with no need for a scoop or cup
- good cleaning power without the environmental damage
- a package that can go right into cardboard recycling or your home compost bin without any complicated tear-down
Overall, I’m so impressed with Tru Earth Eco-Strips that I’ll seriously consider switching to laundry strips for all my future laundry detergent purchases!
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