A Free Lunch Served On Dirty Dishes

Via Dartblog comes the sad story: residents of Spokane, Washington are resorting to smuggling illicit goods from across the border, from that exotic hotbed of black-market activity, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. It's just 30 miles east, on I-90.

Specifically, many Spokanites are bringing home phosphate-laden dishwasher detergent, like Cascade or Electrasol, since it's been banned for sale in the Spokane area.

You probably know the argument: phosphates go into your wastewater, which goes into lakes and rivers, which causes increased algae growth, which smells bad, looks bad, and sucks up oxygen from the water, suffocating fish. Which, in turn, look and smell even worse.

Advocates minimize the cost of a phosphate ban. For example, this cheerful article from the Sierra Club reports:

Consumer Reports in its March 2005 publication concluded that phosphate-free products work as well regular brands, noting it is the enzymes and not phosphates that get dishes clean.
Unfortunately, the story linked above contradicts:
Many people were shocked to find that products like Seventh Generation, Ecover and Trader Joe's left their dishes encrusted with food, smeared with grease and too gross to use without rewashing them by hand. The culprit was hard water, which is mineral-rich and resistant to soap.
(My experience has been the same at Pun Salad Manor. I used the old Palmolive low-phosphate detergent for years, and it worked OK. They recently swithched to a new formulation 'eco+', which seemed to actually make dishies dirtier. Life's too short. We're now using Cascade Complete.)

In this generally positive Forbes article, a supporter of the (upcoming) Maryland ban sounds chipper, but unconvincing:

In Maryland, scientists estimate that the change on the household dishwasher front will reduce phosphorus pollution to the Chesapeake Bay by 3%. "Every little bit counts," says Jennifer Aiosa, a senior scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Annapolis, Md.
Here's the problem: every little bit almost certainly doesn't count. Three percent less algae growth is still a lot of algae. This smells very much like regulation that is based on feelgood symbolism; nobody's bothered much with figuring out actual costs and benefits. (I sometimes think that a lot of environmentalists get a major thrill up their leg when a successful mandatory ban on some despised product goes into effect, irregardless of actual merit.)

Consider the costs of rewashing dishes that didn't get clean the first time. Consider the costs of all those good people firing up their fossil fuel vehicles to schlep Cascade from Coeur d'Alene back to Spokane. Is it really a win?

For further reading: a 1984 article (low-quality scan PDF) from Regulation magazine from W. Kip Viscusi titled "Phosphates and the Environmental Free Lunch". He notes the costs of an outright ban, and argues that it's cheaper to treat phosphate levels by modifying existing wastewater treatment. So:

Why then does the expensive free lunch of a phosphate-detergent ban remain so popular? The reasons are not hard to find. The cost of wastewater treatment facilities are visible and therefore are political as well as economic. By contrast, the costs of a phosphate-detergent ban are not easily attributed to the ban, so the political costs are correspondingly slight. In addition, a ban hits that most popular of political targets, the out-of-state corporate villain. Direct controls on a much more important source of phosphates—the fertilizers used by in-state farmers—would reduce phosphate levels more effectively but at a far higher political cost.
A lot of things have changed since 1984; for one thing, some people have gotten a lot more sophisticated in detecting regulation costs. Other than that, Viscusi's analysis seems on-target.

Last Modified 2017-12-04 6:28 PM EST