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Green product watch: best laundry detergents 11/11
(This article is adapted from the the November 2011 issue of Consumer Reports Magazine.)

Different types of detergents have joined the long lineup of liquids and powders on store shelves, and Consumer Reports included some in the latest tests which involved washing 1,000 pounds of laundry heavily soiled with blood, mud, chocolate ice cream, grass, red wine, ring around the collar, and tea.

Though convenient, the new types aren't among the better choices. Plenty of the more conventional detergents are higher-rated including greener brands.

Greener packaging

A few words about packaging. More detergents are claimed to be concentrated. So you'll use more per load of a brand's 2X version than you will of its 3X detergent, but price per load is similar.

Thanks to new ingredients, many detergents have been reduced to a half or a third of their former volume (you'll see 2X or 3X on their packaging). And yet each downsized package promises to wash the same amount of clothes as the bulky old package it replaces.

Why the shrinkage?

Procter & Gamble is a major force behind the move. P&G, the largest detergent maker, is promoting the new sizes as a convenience for consumers: A 50-ounce, 32-load bottle of the new 2X Tide weighs less than 4 pounds, while its unconcentrated, 100-ounce, 32-load predecessor tips the scales at more than 7 pounds, according to the manufacturer.

P&G is also touting the environmental benefits of its new detergents. The concentrated products require less plastic for bottles, less corrugated cardboard for crating, and less fuel for the trucks that deliver the detergent to the stores.

Retailers are benefiting too. Walmart, the largest retailer of detergents and P&G's biggest customer, has been pushing manufacturers to reduce volume to allow a wider array of models and brands on store shelves. Whatever the incentives, sales of concentrated detergents are booming, according to the marketing research company ACNielsen.

Cold water detergents

"Cold water" detergents generally include stain-lifting enzymes that work better in cold water than hot.

Think that won't get your clothes clean? Think again. Tide 2X Ultra for Cold Water for traditional washers, which was tested using cold water, ranked best overall at removing grass, wine, and other tough stains in the tests. The estimated yearly energy savings from cold water washing is about $60.

Green recommendations

Consumers should be skeptical about green claims for laundry detergents because there are few or no governmental regulations for many of the claims. (There's no standard for using the word "natural" in these products, for instance.)

The Design for the Environment logo on some detergents indicates that EPA criteria were used to ensure that the product doesn't contain ingredients that may harm human health or the environment. Consumer Reports has not formally evaluated the label.

None of the products we tested use nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs), chemicals that help to get clothes clean but that are toxic to aquatic plants and animals.

While all the detergents tested cleaned reasonably well overall, with scores ranging from fair to very good, one of the “green” brands did better than the others:
Seventh Generation Natural Superconcentrated Powder—for high-efficiency (HE) washers or conventional washers
Also tested was Seventh Generation 2X Concentrated Natural Liquid Free & Clear HE, which scored a bit lower. And scoring a little lower was Method HE, which has a triple-concentrated formula. Method also can be used in HE washers or conventional ones.

Tips
• Don't overdose. Household habits can be hard to break. It's all too easy to inadvertently waste the new 2X and 3X concentrated products by using the same amounts you added of the old products. Remember to follow the directions on the packaging and actually measure—the best detergents have clearly marked lines on their fill caps and pictures of the actual caps on their instructions.

• Use the right type of detergent. No washing machine performs at its best if you don't use the right type of detergent. Washing-machine manufacturers generally recommend HE products for front-loading washers and high-efficiency top-loaders, which use less water than most top-loaders. While some low-sudsing HE detergents can be used in top-loading machines, you have to be very careful to increase the amount.
Related links

Cleaners: Green Buying Guide. 1/11

Homemade household cleaners: best recipes. 1/11

Washers: Green buying guide. 10/10
 
Copyright © 2003-2012 by Consumers Union of United States., Inc., 101 Truman Avenue, Yonkers, NY 10703, a nonprofit organization. No downloading, transmission, photocopying, or commercial use permitted. Visit www.GreenerChoices.org.