Soap industry cleans up in Sweden but not Europe

The soap industry has made considerable environmental progress in Sweden, due to continuous pressure from strict eco-label criteria, yet the same companies continue to sell older, 'dirtier' products to the rest of Europe at the same price, says the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation SSNC.

According to the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), the Swedish experience shows that the EU should put much more pressure on the soap industry to sell environmentally sound products and give the right advice to consumers. The International Association of Soap producers’ (AISE) ‘Code of Good Environmental Practice for Household Laundry Detergents’ should be rejected, says EEB, as it “falls far short of what industry can do if it were genuinely concerned about the environment.”

Given the serious pollution of the Baltic Sea, the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation has promoted product innovation and reduction of use by eco-labelling of household cleaning detergents. After eight years 90% of all household detergents are labelled and the amount used has decreased by 15%. During this time, 45% of the used chemicals were replaced with less problematic ones and another 15% completely eliminated.

Disregarding what they had achieved in Sweden under the eco-label pressure, last July, A.I.S.E. members committed themselves to reduce poorly bio-degradable organic ingredients by only 10% and promote a 10% reduction of actual laundry detergent use by the year 2002 (compared to 1996).

The European soap production is dominated by a very small group of companies. Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Henkel, Colgate-Palmolive, Benckiser together cover 90% of the market..

Eva Eiderström of the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, comments: “In Sweden, thanks to the use of eco-labelling, laundry detergents have been reduced by 15% in the period 1988-1996. If all washing machines always would be completely filled and the proper dose of detergents was used, another 50% of the current detergents could be eliminated. If the A.I.S.E. would recommend that consumers used less of softeners, the reduction could even be higher.”

EEB would like the European Commission to insist on a much more meaningful policy of the A.I.S.E., building upon Swedish experience, set stricter targets to be achieved within a given time-frame, and apply a transparent monitoring mechanism.

Eastern Europe

Sewage treatment plants can reduce the environmental impact of detergents to a certain extent. Yet these are often lacking in Central and Eastern and also in Southern European countries. A Polish study shows that laundry detergents sold in Poland are the more polluting, old-fashioned ones, while Polish consumers pay the same price for their detergents as the Swedes do for their sophisticated modern detergents, says EEB.

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