laundry detergent pods, powder, and liquid

Cleaning up the environment is a big task, but one place that you can start to make a big impact is another type of cleaning — laundry. Laundry detergent comes in three primary forms: liquid, powder, or pods. Each of these has its benefits and drawbacks in utility and cost, and there are also environmental factors to consider.

Checking for the Safer Choice label is a  good place to start. Safer Choice is an EPA program that reviews all chemical ingredients in a product against a set of standards for low environmental and toxicological impact. You can check if specific products meet their standards on the EPA website.

However, there is more to the impact of detergents than just the chemicals they’re made of. The form of the detergent, price, and packaging are additional factors to consider.

Powdered Detergent

Powdered detergents are generally low cost and sold in recyclable packaging — usually cardboard boxes or a plastic tub.

There are some drawbacks to powdered detergent. If not entirely rinsed out of clothing by the end of a wash, powdered detergents can leave residue or stains in your clothing. Some powders don’t dissolve completely in cold water — particularly if you use more detergent than necessary.

Powdered detergents are easy to over-use, which can result in chemicals left in clothes and the wastewater produced when washing.

Liquid Detergent

More popular than its powdered counterpart, liquid detergent is less likely to leave residue behind of clothes. But there are other issues to keep in mind.

Liquid detergent most often comes in plastic bottles. Even if there may not be any residue on your clothing, the insides of these bottles are a different story. If leftover detergent isn’t rinsed from the bottles, it may contaminate the other materials in your recycling bin — or worse, a whole truckload of recyclables.

It’s always a good idea to rinse excess product from containers before you put them in your recycling bin.

Detergent Pods

Detergent pods, also called packs, are the most recent form of laundry detergent.

These gel pouches of liquid detergent have the advantage of being premeasured, so you always use the right amount of detergent for a load of laundry. Additionally, the fact that the liquid is sealed in gel pouches means that the interior of the plastic bottles or tubs they’re contained in remains mostly clean. The gel breaks down in the wash and flows away with the wastewater.

But the downside comes from pod packaging. Some brands individually wrap these packs in plastic packaging, increasing the amount of plastic waste. Ideally, this should be recyclable, but it often isn’t.

Packaging Considerations

In all circumstances, it’s important to understand what size, shape, and type of packing your local recycling service will accept. This planning is a key part of precycling, the process of avoiding waste before it’s created.

For example, some recycling services accept only certain shapes or sizes of plastics for recycling. Before you purchase a giant plastic tub of powder or a travel-sized bottle of liquid detergent, make sure the packaging falls within any size and shape limitations.

Does your local recycler currently not accept plastic at all? Consider getting powdered detergent in a cardboard box. Cardboard is commonly accepted for recycling, but be sure to flatten the box and remove all detergent residue.

Detergent pods that are individually wrapped in plastic and detergent in plastic zip-top bags can be problematic. Plastic films commonly cause problems with recycling equipment, so they may not be accepted in curbside recycling. Check with your local recycling service before you put them in the bin.

If your recycling service does not accept the detergent packaging you use, opt for a package that can be recycled. Most brands offer detergent in a variety of formats and packaging.

DIY Detergent

By making your own laundry detergent, you can save money and reduce packaging waste.

With a DIY approach, you know exactly what ingredients you are using, so you avoid any unfamiliar chemicals. If you’d like to give DIY detergent a try, this handy guide shows you how to make your own powdered laundry detergent with just four ingredients.

By Taylor Ratcliffe

Taylor Ratcliffe is Earth911's customer support and database manager. He is a graduate of the University of Washington.