Biodegradable
Detergents and the Environment
Environmental History - Political Science
5.5 x 8.5, 160 pp.
2 line drawings., Tables.
Pub Date: 07/01/1991
Environmental History Series
  cloth
Price:        $44.95 s

978-0-89096-479-8

Published by Texas A&M University Press

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Biodegradable

Detergents and the Environment

By William McGucken

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—the active ingredients of synthetic detergents and the producers of foam—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.

William McGucken is professor of history at the University of Akron, Ohio. He is a member of the American Society for Environmental History, the Society for the History of Technology, and the History of Science Society. His special interest is the historical interactions of science and technology with society and the environment.

What Readers Are Saying:

“ . . . an excellent case study . . . The book reads well and is a respectable historical look at a pollution problems solved in this country without massive legislation from Congress.” --Choice

“McGucken provides the reader with an even-handed description of the processes that entail solving such a problem . . . [the book] should make it to the top of the best-seller lists for readers who are seeking a scholarly explanation [of] why solving environmental issues is neither fast nor simple.” --Ohio Journal of Science

“This book fits nicely into a broader discussion of the growing concern for water pollution and other environmental questions of the era . . . Indeed, this is a case study of one particular problem. As such, it is a model of efficiency. McGucken does a terrific job of reducing complex chemical reactions into more general terms, making the study accessible to a more general readership. The real value of Biodegradable will be for individuals interested in historic water pollution problems and with policy in government and industry.” --Environmental History Review

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