Phosphates and the Environmental Free Lunch
Viscusi, W. Kip
The environmental rationale for a detergent phosphate ban is straightforward enough. Phosphates are pollutants because, ironically enough, they are biodegradable. In fact, living things thrive on them. Excessive phosphate levels in lakes and streams promote rapid growth of algae, and so speed up the natural aging process (called eutrophication) of these waterways. The clarity of the water declines, oxygen levels drop, and in extreme cases fish die. The watershed, in short, can become a swamp rich in primitive plant and animal life, but not at all like the pristine waters that humans prefer to swim and fish. What could be more appealing than a legislative ban of phosphates in detergents? The payoff: clearer water at no cost whatsoever to the taxpayer. Indeed, some even suggest that the ban offers a financial advantage to consumers, because some generic nonphosphate detergents cost less than the brand-name phosphate detergents consumers now buy. The free lunch, in other words, is freer than free. No wonder some state legislators are eager to dine. But for those interested in environmental protection, not political pabulum, some irritating seasoning comes along with the meal. First, even if the lunch is free, it is not a substantial repast. Detergent phosphates are only small contributors to the overall phosphate levels. Second, the lunch is not free. A fact apparently overlooked by some state legislatures is that consumers adjust their behavior in response to the phosphate ban. And when all is said and done, washing without phosphates is quantifiably more expensive than washing with them.