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Organization for the Assabet River
Damonmill Square
Concord, MA 01742

Tel: 978-369-3956
Email: oar@assabetriver.org


Friend or phosphate?

Alternative detergents can ease Assabet's pollution ...

... all you have to do is use them. Residents of the 140,000 households in the Assabet River Watershed can use non-phosphate automatic dishwasher detergents to ease the strain on our river's ecosystem.

Blooming plant life and algae above one of the Assabet River's dams demonstrates the need for nutrient control in our watershed.

The Problem

What is wrong with the Assabet River? It is grossly over-fertilized by nutrients, particularly phosphorus and phosphate, which is a form of phosphorus. These nutrients cause aquatic plants to grow like crazy. The plants blanket many parts of the river during the summer making it difficult and unpleasant to boat or fish in these areas. When these plants die view, they stink and can harm fish and other creatures by changing the amount of dissolved oxygen in the river. To restore the Assabet, we must dramatically reduce the amount of phosphorus we put into it.

How you can help

If you have an automatic dishwasher and your residence is connected to a municipal sewer system, you can help clean up the Assabet River and reduce the cost of wastewater treatment in your community right away.

How? By using a non-phosphate automatic dishwashing detergent.

Between 9% and 34% of the phosphorus load going to wastewater treatment plants from domestic sewage comes from automatic dishwashing detergents. (N.B. Pickering, CRWA, 2001)

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What about other kinds of household soaps and detergents?

Automatic dishwashing detergents are a significant source of phosphorus. Laundry and hand dishwashing soaps and detergents are not. Why?

The state's existing phosphorus law, M.G. Chapter 111, Section 5R requires that laundry and hand dishwashing soaps and detergents sold and used in Massachusetts contain only trace amounts of phosphorus, defined as no more than 0.5 percent phosphorus by weight. But automatic dishwashing detergents are exempt from this requirement, and are allowed to contain up to 8.7 percent phosphorus by weight. That may not seem like much, but it adds up.

For example, if 15% of the phosphorus load to the Assabet River wastewater treatment plants comes from phosphate-containing automatic dishwashing detergents, these detergents would contribute an estimated:

  • 9,686 pounds per year to the Westborough wastewater treatment Plant
  • 3,801 pounds per year to the Marlborough Westerly wastewater treatment plant
  • 4,130 pounds per year to the Hudson wastewater treatment plant
  • 2,046 pounds per year to the Maynard wastewater treatment plant

That's a lot of phosphorus! This load could be eliminated entirely if people used non-phosphate automatic dishwashing detergents.

State Senators Pamela P. Resor, Susan C. Fargo and Kay Khan filed Senate Bill No. 1114 in January 2001 to eliminate the automatic dishwashing detergent exemption. You can view the bill on Massachusetts General Court website on or after January 8, 2001.

Non-phosphate rinse aids

Much of the groundwater in the Assabet watershed contains a lot of dissolved iron and manganese. If your water comes from a municipal or private well, consider using a non-phosphate rinse aid when you use a non-phosphate automatic dishwashing detergent. The rinse aid can help prevent filming of dissolved minerals on your dishes and utensils.

Phosphate content in popular cleaners

If you have difficulty finding non-phosphate automatic dishwasher detergents in your area, make sure that you are using a low phosphate dishwashing detergent. Below is a list of phosphate-containing brands commonly found in local stores. You will see that phosphate content varies significantly among brands. Note that 8.7% phosphate by weight is the most allowed under current Massachusetts law.

Dishwashing Detergents Phosphate Content
Palmolive Gel 1.6%
Cascade Complete: Liquid 4.0%
Cascade Complete: Gel 4.0%
Sunlight Gel 4.3%
Cascade PureRinse 4.4%
Electra-Sol Gel 4.9%
Sunlight Powder 5.6%
Electra-Sol Powder 6.1%
Spot-Free (Wal-Mart) Powder 7.0%
Stop N Shop Powder (Lemon) 7.5%
Stop N Shop Powder (Regular) 7.5%
Cascade Complete Powder 7.7%
Cascade Complete Tablets 8.48%
Sunlight Tablets 8.7%
Electra-Sol Tablets 8.7%
Palmolive Tablets 8.7%
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Where you can buy non-phosphate automatic dishwashing detergents

Local Supermarkets and Stores:

Below is a list of supermarkets and stores that carry non-phosphate automatic dishwashing detergents in the communities of Westborough, Shrewsbury, Hudson, Stow and Concord. Currently, there are no stores in the communities of Marlborough, Northborough, Berlin, Maynard and Acton that carry non-phosphate automatic dishwashing detergent.

Be a scientist! Experiment and find out which products work best in your home. And of course, let us know about it. Contact OAR.

If your favorite supermarket or store doesn't carry non-phosphate automatic dishwashing detergents, ask them to! If they need more information about these products, tell them to visit this webpage, and or to call the OAR office at (978) 369-3956.

Eutrophication affects the middle and upper sections of the Assabet the most, including this stretch near Crow Island in Stow.

Trader Joe's
145 Great Road
Acton, MA 01720

Crosby's Supermarket
211 Sudbury Road
Concord, MA 01742
(978) 287-5713

Debra's Natural Gourmet
98 Commonwealth Avenue
West Concord, MA 01742
(978) 371-7573

Basha's Natural Marketplace
196 Washington Street
Hudson, MA 01749
(978) 562-2154

Shaws Supermarket
50 Boston Turnpike
Shrewsbury, MA 01545
(508) 797-1126

Trader Joe's
77 Boston Turnpike
Shrewsbury, MA 01545
(508) 755-9560

Whole Food Market
(Bread and Circus)
Post Road

Simple Enough
18 Lyman Street

Note: Stop and Shop stores used to carry these products but their Corporate Office in Quincy has decided to remove them.  If you would like your local Stop and Shop to offer non-phosphate automatic dishwashing detergents, you can reach the Headquarters Office by calling 781-380-8000 and asking to speak to the Marketing Department.

The cost of non-phosphate automatic dishwashing detergents

Most non-phosphate automatic dishwashing detergents are more expensive than their phosphate-containing counterparts. Generally, the reason is that phosphate substitutes are more expensive than phosphates. But the cost of removing phosphates at wastewater treatment plants and potentially from storm water is even higher. Spending a little more on a non-polluting detergent is a worthwhile investment.

Wholesale Distributors in New England

United Natural Foods
(formerly Stow Mills)
Telephone (800) 877-8898 x2241

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Get it online:

This is not an exhaustive list. Let us know if you find other companies that sell non-phosphate automatic dishwashing detergent. OAR does not endorse any particular non-phosphate automatic dishwashing detergent. However, we want to hear about your experiences using these products. Contact OAR


Green Market Place

Real Goods

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Links to more information

The following are the web sites of companies that make non-phosphate detergents. Again, OAR does not endorse any particular detergent. Please comment on these or let us know if you know of any others.





Other links

Soap and Detergent Association (SDA)
     SDA-Dishwashing Detergents Click here
     SDA-Automatic Dishwashing Click here

Centre Europeen D�Etudes des Polyphosphates (CEEP)

CEEP (Centre Europ�en d�Etudes sur les Polyphosphates) was created in 1971 as the joint research fund for the polyphosphate industry. CEEP became a CEFIC Sector Group in 1996 (CEFIC = European Chemical Industry Council). CEEP provides a forum for scientific research and the circulation of information concerning the impact of phosphates on the environment, their properties and the performance of polyphosphate products. Their website is in English.

Other phosphorus sources to think about:

Significant quantities of nutrients are also carried into the Assabet River and its tributary streams from lawns, streets and parking lots by storm water runoff. In mid-2001, the Middlesex Conservation District and OAR will add another page to this website to provide you with specific information about ways to minimize phosphorus and nitrogen contributions from lawns, gardens and pets.

Another source of phosphorus in your household is food waste, that is the scraps of food you wash down your sink and especially the food ground up in a food disposal or "pig." Instead of sending this phosphorus-rich material to your community's wastewater treatment, compost it!

More Assabet Issues

Join OAR...For more information about the Assabet's problems and the people doing something about them, click here.