Biodegradable: Detergents and the Environment

Biodegradable: Detergents and the Environment

Biodegradable: Detergents and the Environment

Biodegradable: Detergents and the Environment


Synthetic detergents rapidly replaced soap for most domestic cleaning purposes after World War II. Concurrently, great billows of foam began passing undegraded through sewage treatment plants into receiving waters, which were often sources for domestic water supplies. The detergent industry quickly learned that many surface-active agents#151;the active ingredients of synthetic detergents and the producers of foam#151;were not readily biodegradable. The most popular surface-active agent was alkyl benzene sulfonate (ABS). Industrialized societies had developed satisfactory sewage processes to treat domestic wastes, but even the most advanced treatment facilities proved incapable of degrading ABS.

Biodegradable examines the development of synthetic detergents and the unanticipated pollution of surface waters and groundwaters by this new technology, as well as the social, political, and industrial responses that resulted in correction of the problem. Public and governmental pressure in the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Federal Republic of Germany led to the international detergent industry's finding a biodegradable substitute for ABS, namely, linear alkyl sulfonate (LAS). Its use from the mid-1960s solved the foaming pollution problem.

The three countries responded to the problem very differently. West Germany almost immediately legislated that only those detergents that were more than eighty percent biodegradable could be sold. The U. S. government allowed the detergent industry to seek a solution while the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare monitored the industry's progress. In the U. K. the government created committees and required industry to cooperate with them to find a solution. Biodegradable not only examines problems resulting from a new technology but also compares and contrasts different societies' methods of dealing with these problems.


The environmental movement of recent decades within the United States has been depicted by Samuel P. Hays as being rooted in vast social changes that followed World War II. According to Hays, the movement "differed markedly" from the conservation movement of the early twentieth century. "The conservation movement was an effort on the part of leaders in science, technology, and government to bring about more efficient development of physical resources. the environmental movement, on the other hand, was far more widespread and popular, involving public values that stressed the quality of human experience and hence of the human environment." Hays sees the environmental movement as having evolved through three stages, with each "giving rise to distinctive substantive issues, organized environmental action, governmental response, and balance of power between environmental advocates and their opponents." the initial issues, which "shaped debate between 1957 and 1965," concerned "natural-environment values in outdoor recreation, wildlands, and open space." the second stage, running from 1965 to 1972, was dominated by concern about pollution, particularly water and air pollution. Finally, the principal subjects of the third phase beginning in the early 1970s were "toxic chemicals, energy, and the possibilities for social, economic, and political decentralization."

Writing more than a decade before Hays, J. Clarence Davies iii and Barbara S. Davies portrayed in post-World War II America both a widespread public concern about environmental pollution and a determination at the federal level of government to abate pollution. To them the country's booming postwar economy, with its expanding industrial production and growing consumer consumption, together with an increasing population underlay the burgeoning pollution problem. Barry Commoner argued that new production technologies accompanying the increasing production were key contributing elements in pollution.

Affluence had led to increased pollution, but in the Davieses' view it had . . .

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