Parliament backs limits on phosphates

Water quality with EU flag.jpg

The European Parliament yesterday (14 December) overwhelming approved measures to restrict the phosphate content of household cleaning products.

The vote of 631-18 backed changes which had already been endorsed by EU member states' representatives in November aimed at creating a common European phosphate standard.

"By strictly limiting phosphorus in consumer laundry and dishwasher detergents, we have done the environment a good turn and consumers will be assured that these products will be more environmentally friendly," said UK MEP Bill Newton Dunn (Alliance of Liberals Democrats for Europe), the parliamentary leader on the legislation.

Phosphates help boost the cleaning power of detergents and washing soaps but also cause algae formations that can deprive fish and marine plants of oxygen. High levels of phosphorus have been blamed for declining fish populations in rivers like the Danube.

Although livestock and animal waste are the main sources of phosphorus in water supplies, farm fertilisers account for 16% and household detergents 10%.

More strict than Commission proposals

The measures approved by the Parliament expand on an initial proposal from the European Commission restrict phosphate use in laundry products. The legislation was expanded to include dishwasher detergents.

The Parliament’s action still faces formal approval from national representatives.

The legislation says a standard dose of washing powder must not contain more than 0.5 grams of phosphorus beginning in June 2013. By 1 January 2017, dishwasher soaps will be limited to a phosphate content of 0.3 grams per dose. Although many companies offer alternative phosphate-free products, phosphates comprise up to half the weight of some detergents.

Many EU countries already limit the use of phosphates, but the EU measures will provide a common standard across the 27 countries, allowing simplified trade in soaps and detergents.

Environmental groups that have long fought for tougher restrictions on phosphates in washing powders and dishwashing detergents hailed the move but said implementation of the standards should come sooner. 

Sergey Moroz, the World Wildlife Fund for Nature’s water policy officer in Brussels, said that by setting “excessive deadlines, the regulation lacks the sense of urgency needed to finally bring life back to the Danube and the dead areas of the Baltic or the Black Seas.”

French MEP Françoise Grossetête (European People’s Party) said she was “very satisfied" that restrictions on phosphates in household cleaning products will apply to all member states starting in January 2013. "This victory is double since under pressure from the European Parliament, the member states also included the restriction of phosphate use in dishwashing products,” she said.

Swedish MEP Carl Schlyter, environment spokesperson for the Greens, said: "The release of phosphates into surface water can have a devastating impact on freshwater sources and ecosystems, and it is high time that we take proactive steps to end this. Given that alternatives for phosphates in detergents have been on the market for years, a ban is long-overdue.”


The European Commission had proposed in 2010 to ban phosphate and other phosphorous compounds in laundry detergents.

An existing regulation (EC) No 648/2004 is aimed at reducing the phosphates found in wastewater and to improve water quality.

The draft regulation at the time did not make any specific mention to automatic dishwashers detergents or the ones used by professionals as "economically feasible alternatives".

  • June 2013: Standard dose of washing powder must not contain more than 0.5 grams of phosphorus.
  • January 2017: Dishwasher soaps will be limited to a phosphate content of 0.3 grams per dose.


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