A clean home needn't mean a dirty river

Everyone can make a difference by choosing phosphate free cleaning products

Although our rivers look clean, their clear waters can still hide a big problem – phosphate.  This colourless chemical may not been seen, but when there is too much it can spell disaster for rivers and their wildlife.

High levels of phosphate drive algal growth, which upsets the ecological balance of the river leading to prolific growth of algae, which at worst can kill plants and animals and even pose a risk to human health.

Phosphate is a plant nutrient, useful on land as a component of fertilisers, but in our waterways it allows nutrient-hungry algae to out-compete the natural
aquatic plants like stream water crowfoot, starwort and watercress. It alters plant communities, affecting the creatures that should live there, and in severe cases causes algal blooms which use up oxygen and ‘suffocate’ aquatic insects and fish.  

Left: brown algae deposits, below prolific algal growth 

Stopping phosphate pollution isn’t easy, because phosphate isn’t just in fertiliser, in fact runoff from farmland contributes only around a quarter of phosphate in rivers, and farmers have been working hard with support from Catchment Sensitive Farming Advisors from ARK and Natural England to reduce the loss of fertilisers and soils from their land.
The remainder comes from waste water generated by our homes and businesses.  There have been significant improvements in waste water treatment standards, but phosphate can’t easily be removed at all water treatment works. 
Along the Kennet, many of the larger sewage treatment works do have phosphate stripping technology to reduce the amount of phosphate in effluent, but the village works don’t have this benefit. What is more, private systems like septic tanks can’t remove phosphate at all, they discharge phosphate-rich effluent directly into the environment.

What can we do to help?

Every householder can easily help to make a difference - phosphates used in domestic cleaning products account for nearly a fifth of the phosphate in our waste water

So some selective shopping can prevent this chemical being discharged into our rivers.

Many cleaning products have a high phosphate content, despite changes in legislation to reduce levels in laundry detergent.  Dishwasher detergents are a particular culprit with some containing over a third by weight, but low-phosphate alternatives are available – aim for those containing 5% or less.

Ecover is one brand that doesn't contain phosphates. Lidl's W5 is low in phosphate, so take a look at the label.


The good news is that some manufacturers don’t use phosphate at all – so switching to brands like Ecover, Planet Clean or Faith in Nature can protect our local rivers from this damaging and rather unnecessary pollutant.

A clean home doesn’t have to mean a dirty river. Thoughtful shopping can make a difference to this complex problem. Each of us, working alongside good land management by farmers, good sewage treatment by water companies and good river management by riparian owners can make an improvement to our river environment.  

For the full campaign leaflet click here.