Delhi · Urban Rivers · Yamuna River

A beginning of the Pipe Solution: Policy Intervention To Reduce Phosphates in Detergents

Guest Article by: Manu Bhatnagar

Consequent to INTACH’s efforts with the Yamuna Monitoring Committee [YMC] of NGT the following results were obtained in 2021:  

“The Delhi government on Monday (June 14, 2021) banned the sale, storage, transportation, and marketing of soaps and detergents not conforming to the latest BIS parameters to curb pollution in the Yamuna river. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) had in January (2021) accepted recommendations of the Yamuna Monitoring Committee (YMC) which had suggested directing the Delhi government to issue orders “prohibiting sale, storage and transportation and marketing of detergents which do not conform to the revised BIS standards”. All the authorities concerned, including local bodies, civil supplies department and district administrations having control over shops and other establishments dealing with sale, storage, transportation and marketing facilities for soaps and detergents in Delhi should ensure the compliance of directions through strict vigil and surprise checks, the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) said in an order issued on Monday. 

In its report submitted to the NGT, the YMC had also suggested that all the manufacturers of soaps and detergents be directed to disclose the ingredients present in the product and display the same on the package.” – The above as reported in Business Standard of 15 June, 2021. [i]

Nitrates and phosphates are two major compounds afflicting the wastewater stream. The presence of both compounds results in eutrophication of the waterbodies and stream channels. Whilst it is easier to remove nitrates the elimination of phosphates from wastewater streams is difficult and costly to achieve.  

Phosphates are a major component of detergents, used as builders, having little active role in cleansing, and by law can be reduced by manufacturers. This can result in a beginning of pipe solution rather than an end of pipe solution, thereby decreasing pollution in in untreated areas and improving results of sewage treatment.  Hence, a beginning of the pipe solution can give better results than end of the pipe treatment, i.e. a policy instrument can produce, in this instance, better results than technical means.

A devotee offers prayers to the rising Sun during Chhath Puja as toxic froth floats on the surface of polluted Yamuna river, at Kalindi Kunj, in New Delhi in November 2018 | PTI Photo/Kamal Kishore

Phosphates constitute a major component of detergents. Currently, it is estimated that India uses 4 million tons of detergents annually. On a per capita basis this is the lowest in the world and likely to go up with rising living standards.

Under Canadian Environmental Protection Act [1999] Canada has mandatorily reduced the level of phosphates to 0.5% [July, 2010] in household laundry detergents. In India the prevalent standard is IS 8180 [1992] in which the percentage of phosphates has been limited to 11% and is currently under process to reduce the same to under 5%. [The 1999 Act gives powers under which progressively phosphates were reduced, finally being reduced to 0.5% in 2010.]

The IS 8180 standard is under revision but still to be notified, most likely as a result of pressures from manufacturer’s lobby. The proposed standard lays down a limit of 5% phosphate and further requires the composition of the detergent to be published on the wrapper as well as BIS mark displayed. As on date no manufacturer is displaying any of these. It is reported that almost all the laundry detergents in India contain STPP [Sodium tripolyphosphate] ranging from 8 per cent to 35 per cent. This is because the IS 8180 is not not mandatory, not implemented. I wrote to Deputy CM and to CEO Jal Board, but got no response and no actual implementation has taken place. The Delhi govt decision was basically due to NGT orders.

A principal ingredient in all laundry detergents is the surfactant (surface active agent), which is the essential cleaning agent. Surfactants, however, are more efficient in basic cleaning performance when they are combined with other chemicals called “builders.” Builders bring about conditions in the wash water which both permit the surfactants to work much more effectively ·and reduce the amount of surfactants necessary. Since just after World War II, phosphate compounds have been the principal builders in laundry detergents in this country, allowing synthetic detergents largely to replace soap in the washing process. Canadian producers gradually replaced a portion of the phosphates in detergents with sodium nitrilotriacetate (NTA). When used in combination with some phosphate, this provides an adequate builder system both in terms of washing performance and price.

Yamuna a sea of foam downstream of Okhla Barrage in Delhi

‘There is a large literature on environmental policy; initially governments concentrated on limiting pollution by imposing regulations or standards on firms, but the emphasis has moved towards policies employing economic incentives, in particular environmental taxation… Policies on phosphorus have followed this pattern, starting by setting national standards through regulation, through international agreements where necessary. Most policy on phosphates has been of this nature. Germany and the Netherlands are among the signatories to the Rhine Action programme, which required a 50% reduction in inputs of phosphorus and nitrogen to surface waters. With the more recent trend towards the use of economic instruments, such as taxes and charges, the taxation of phosphates is now being considered and has been enacted for detergents in France in particular.’ (Detergent Phosphates: an EU Policy Assessment by Jonathan Köhler in Oct 2006 paper: [The 2006 quote is relevant because the proposed measures were implemented and I have proposed similar measures.]

Way Forward

The Govt. of India can press BIS to fast forward notifying IS 8180 and revising the proposed limit of 5% to a lower figure, say 1%. [The IS 8180 has been now notified with 5% in detergent soaps and 2.5% in powders, but these are for getting the BIS mark, not mandatory.] The compliance time period may be a short 12 months. Alternately, State Govt.s, particularly Ganga Basin states, can make such a notification.

The BIS standard is not a statutory one so making the standard mandatory will have to be examined. Therefore, GoI can examine imposing highest level of GST on non-complying products over a transition period, thereafter discouraging the sale of the violating product altogether.

Simultaneously, concerned Governments can promote herbal soaps [made of reetha/hingot] through various incentive measures. The efficacy of these in washing machines can be demonstrated as a replacement of phosphate based detergents. Demonstrations have also shown that removal of herbal soaps requires 30% less water than otherwise. [This measure would also have a significant economic backwash in rural areas requiring planting of reetha/hingot trees which would be maintained for their economic value and also engage rural women and thereby empower them].

(Manu Bhatnagar ( is Principal Director, NH Division, INTACH)


Canadian Regulations

What is the purpose of the Regulations?

The purpose of the Regulations is to protect Canada’s environment from the release of phosphorus from certain products that could contribute to the over-fertilization of freshwater ecosystems, and the growth of harmful algae blooms that are proliferating in Canada’s lakes and rivers.

To whom do the Regulations apply?

The Regulations apply to the manufacturers and importers of laundry detergents, household dish-washing compounds (including hand dish-washing soap and automatic dish-washing detergents) and household cleaners. Cleaning products in transit through Canada are exempt from the requirements of the regulations.  

What is a household cleaner?

Household cleaners, for the purposes of the Regulations, include any cleaning product that is produced or intended primarily for domestic cleaning purposes, excluding laundry detergents and dish-washing compounds (which are subject to other limits), and metal cleaners and de-greasing compounds.

What does the household cleaner category include?

Examples of such cleaners would include, but not be limited to:

  • rust, lime and mineral removers
  • floor cleaners
  • products labeled as “all purpose” or “general purpose” cleaners
  • spot removers, toilet bowl cleaners
  • upholstery cleaners
  • kitchen cleansers
  • mold and mildew cleaners
  • oven cleaners
  • scouring powders
  • heavy duty cleaners
  • waxes and polishes
  • carpet cleaners
  • drain cleaners or openers
  • glass cleaners
  • sink, tub and tile cleaners

What are the phosphorus concentration limits in products, as specified in the Regulations?

The Regulations set the following phosphorus concentration limits* for the manufacture or import of specific products:

Phosphorus concentration limits in products: manufacture and importation
 Prior to July 1st, 2010On/after July 1st, 2010
Household laundry detergents2.2%0.5%
Commercial and industrial laundry detergents2.2%2.2%
Household dish-washing compounds (including hand dish-washing soap and automatic dish-washing detergents)N/A**0.5%
Household cleanersN/A**0.5%

* All concentration limits, above, are expressed as a percentage by weight of elemental phosphorus.
**N/A – not applicable.



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