Example 1. Eutrophication, phosphorus, zeolites, and laundry detergents in the United States.

In the US in the mid-1960s, a primary cause of rivers and lakes turning green and having an abundance of aquatic plant growth (eutrophication) was high levels of phosphorus (a major nutrient source for plants) in the water. One of the main sources of effluent phosphorus was phosphates in laundry detergents. At about the same time, the scientific community started studying this eutrophication process and problem, with the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and National Research Council (NRC) creating a planning committee in response to growing public concern and protests. An international symposium was held on the subject at the University of Wisconsin in June 1967, and was sponsored by the US Atomic Energy Commission, the US Department of Interior, and the US Department of the Navy. One key outcome of this symposium was a recommendation to reduce phosphorus in wastewater by developing non-phosphate detergents [1] .

The public also became very active at local, state, and federal levels in these discussions during the 1960s and 1970s. As a result, local and state governments (including Michigan, New York, and Florida) began drafting or enacting phosphate legislation. At the federal level, both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) began investigating and drafting guidance on the eutrophication problem caused by phosphates in laundry soaps [1] .

At the same time, the private sector was also involved and supportive of making a change. The three largest laundry detergent manufacturers (Procter & Gamble, Lever Brothers, and Colgate-Palmolive, with 80% of the US market) were cooperative in negotiating for a solution that would keep an economically level playing field for all suppliers. In 1970, H.J. Morgens, president of Proctor & Gamble, said: “We recognize that the public wants phosphates out of laundry detergents and we intend to take them out. Our job is to make certain that we remove them as rapidly as we can do in a thoroughly reasonable manner. This we are doing [1] ”.

While reductions of phosphates in laundry soap began in the US during the 1960s and early 1970s, including limited bans in some localities and areas, the elimination was incomplete or slowed by the fact there was no good substitute for phosphorus. It was only in the 1970s that zeolites (as a new technology, whose discovery was in part driven by political pressure and economic opportunity) were introduced in the US as substitutes in laundry soap. It was at this point that phosphorus was phased out of the US market rapidly and through the 1980s. Today, one of the main commercial applications of zeolites (or similar substitutes) is for the commercial manufacture of laundry detergents [2] .

When one of the key pillars of sustainability is missing, effective solutions and implementation are hindered. In this case, both the economic (including consumer and corporate stakeholder support) and law (including enthusiastic civic engagement) pillars were present, but not until the technological solution developed was a breakthrough possible. At which point, with all three pillars engaged, implementation and a solution rapidly followed.