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Saturday, October 1, 2011

STPP Alternatives: Non-Phosphate Builders for Detergents


Detergents are formulated with different types of chemical substances. These are classified as:

  • surfactants
  • builders
  • bleaching agents
  • auxiliary agents

Detergent builders play a central role in the washing process. Their function is largely to support the surfactant action and to eliminate water hardness. And the mostly widely use builder is Sodium tripolyphosphate (STPP).


STPP is a strong cleaning ingredient that removes soils and spots in dishes and fabrics. STPP allows surfactants to work at their full potential, prevents deposition of soil, softens detergent water and acts as a pH buffer. But STPP as builders in detergents produces a significant increase of the phosphorus load in surface water and a significant risk for eutrophication.
Eutrophication is a syndrome of ecosystem responses to human activities that fertilize water bodies with nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P), often leading to changes in animal and plant populations and degradation of water and habitat quality. -

Formulations with STPP:

Reducing the amount of sodium tripolyphosphate (STPP) used in detergent builders can be done by switching to ‘alternative’ non-phosphate based builders, such as Zeolite A, Citric Acid, and NTA (nitrilo-tri-acetic acid).

Zeolite A
Zeolite A
As a detergent builder, Zeolite A was developed specifically as an environmentally preferable alternative to phosphate builders, which can cause eutrophication of freshwater bodies by nourishing excessive amounts of algae.

Zeolites possess a number of advantages over other builders during the production of detergents. With regards, zeolites display a very high product stability, regardless of the particular process employed (spray drying, granulation, extrusion etc). They prove inert when exposed to elevated temperatures, mechanical influences or alkalinity.

The high flexibility of zeolites with respect to formulation and ease of processing together with the economic advantage of the raw material have led to it becoming an extremely attractive builder.

Citric Acid
Citric Acid
Citric Acid as an alternative builder has these advantages: “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) status, with an unlimited ADI value (“acceptable daily intake”)
  • fast and complete biodegradation in sewage treatment plants
  • good binding capacity for water hardness (calcium ions) between 20° and 60°
  • assists the functioning of surfactants
  • citrate and zeolites can complement each other
  • compatible with enzymes and other auxiliary agents

The safe characteristics of citrate towards humans and the environment are clearly documented and can be considered as an important advantage over STPP and NTA. Moreover, citric acid and its salts are produced by fermentation based on renewable raw materials like sugar beets, wheat and corn. Numerous examples exist of detergentformulations that are phosphate-free and contain citric acid or citrates. These productsare already on the market in several countries and are an environmental friendly alternative to phosphate containing detergents. They are already wellaccepted by the customers. -

Nitrilotriacetic acid (NTA)

Nitrilotriacetic acid has many commercial applications, but is used primarily as a metal ion chelating agent and as a laundry detergent builder (IARC 1990). It sequesters magnesium and calcium ions present in hard water, thereby reducing buildup and scaling caused by salts of these ions.
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