Over the last 12 months in particular, many of us have become increasingly aware of the damage we humans wreak on our oceans and the rest of the natural world. Blue Planet II highlighted the perils of plastic, while a news story about a lobster with a Pepsi logo "tattooed" on its claw became a viral sensation.
Slowly but surely, progress is being made. The resistance against plastic bags continues to grow, we've woken up to the scourge of excessive packaging and disposable coffee cups, and a ban on microbeads in beauty products recently came into force. There are many reasons to be positive.
But – and it's a big but – it's not just our plastic consumption that we need to be mindful of.
Even the simple, if laborious, act of doing the dishes or putting a load of clothes in the washing machine has a negative impact on the environment.
Have you ever taken the time to read the small print on the back of a bottle of washing-up liquid, laundry detergent or a typical surface-cleaning spray?
Harmful to aquatic life with long-lasting effects
Alongside the typical warnings that these products could poison us, blind us and erode our skin, the labels of many cleaning products found in the average UK supermarket or corner shop carry a message saying the contents are "harmful to aquatic life with long-lasting effects".
We picked up dozens of products in shops and supermarkets and saw the phrase repeated time and time again.
For example, Fairy dishwashing liquid, Persil non bio detergent capsules, Flash spray with bleach, Surf biological liquid washing detergent, Bold 2 in 1 washing powder and Ariel washing gel all carried the message, but it can be found on a legion of other products too.
"Harmful to aquatic life with long-lasting effects" sounds serious, but what exactly does it mean and should we be worried? Specifically, what do these brands mean by "harmful" and how do they define "long-lasting"?
Under the EU's CLP Regulation (for classification, labelling and packaging), which came into effect in 2015, all chemical mixtures, such as paints, adhesives, cement, solvents and cleaning products, must be assessed and if hazardous, classified and labelled for their hazards to human health or environmental safety, Philip Malpass, director general of the UK Cleaning Products Industry Association (UKCPI), told Refinery29.
As part of this labelling, a hazardous product's packaging must include both a symbol and a precautionary statement – in this case, "harmful to aquatic life with long-lasting effects" – that reflects the classification of the product.
The system is 'hazard-based' rather than 'risk-based' and in the case of detergent products, companies will classify them based on the cumulative hazard posed by the components in the formulation for both human health impact and environmental impact "should there be a catastrophic / undiluted / concentrated exposure to affect human or environment health."
To make the classification, the companies that manufacture these products don't test the product or its ingredients on fish or the environment, but instead can use existing data or "external expert judgement and weight of evidence".
It might reassure you to know the warning is based on "a very unrealistic scenario". The risk from the detergents is diluted in the washing machine, by waste water and sewage, then is treated in a water treatment plant before finally being discharged into a river or sea, where it is diluted further still – so the risk is reduced dramatically.
Procter and Gamble (which owns home-care brands including Ariel, Bold 2 in 1, Fairy (and Fairy Non Bio), Febreze and Lenor) had this to say about the message:
"The use of concentrated formulas means that we are required, by EU legislation, to include the warning related to aquatic life on these bottles to inform how to handle should a large quantity enter water as a result of an accident for example."
We also contacted Unilever, which owns five home-care brands (Cif, Comfort, Domestos, Persil and Surf). They said the small print was a "precautionary warning" and "a regulatory requirement".
If the ingredients in these products are cause for concern, there are plenty of alternatives that you can use.
Ecover and Method make some of the best ecologically sound cleaning products, which are also vegan and certified cruelty-free. Both brands are affordable, although slightly more expensive (Ecover's washing-up liquid is about 60p more expensive than a similar size bottle of Fairy), and available in UK supermarkets and online. Waitrose's own brand of ethical cleaning products, ECOlogical, is also a good option and, we are told, smells nice.
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