European Commission proposes stricter detergent rules

The Enterprise Directorate-General of the European Commission is holding an internet consultation on a proposed revision of the European Union’s detergents legislation, including tighter rules on the biodegradability of surfactants, a key substance used in detergents, and compulsory labelling of products causing skin sensitisation or irritation.


The proposed revision of five existing directives includes new provisions to better protect the aquatic environment by controlling the ultimate biodegradability of detergents; the supply of information to consumers on the content of detergent and cleaning products would become mandatory and new labelling measures are foreseen for substances and preparations which can cause allergies. The Commission is requesting comments, via the Enterprise Directorate-General’s site as to whether labelling measures should also be extended to cover perfumes in detergents.

On surfactants, the Commission proposes that only those that are ‘ultimately biodegradable’ reach the market, meaning they should break down completely under microbial action to produce water, carbon dioxide and mineral salts. Currently, surfactants only have to undergo ‘primary biodegradation’, a partial breakdown in which only surface active properties are lost. By the Enterprise Directorate-General’s own business impact assessment, 5% of existing surfactants would fail the proposed rules and would be banned from being sold in EU nations.

The proposed measures would offer several benefits, the Commission says, such as extending the test methods with the aim of covering all surfactants, the reduction of unnecessary testing and the incorporation of safeguard clauses. Producers would be responsible for carrying out testing, which would be at “a reasonable cost”. Another proposed measure is that all products found to cause skin irritation or sensitisation should be labelled.

The European Association for Soaps, Detergents and Maintenance Products (AISE), the industry body, has welcomed “the risk-based approach to the biodegradability of detergents”, but has criticised such moves as mandatory labelling, which it says, represents “an unnecessary provision” which could be a “costly administrative burden for the industry with no benefit to the consumer”.

All interested parties, including the general public, should comment on the draft text and the accompanying preliminary business impact assessment by 15 September 2001.

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