Are Water Softeners Bad for the Environment?

Last Updated on August 10, 2023 by Krystine

Water softeners are controversial, with concerns about salt use and sustainability.

But are these concerns justified?

Examining the facts behind salt-based systems and alternatives illuminates the best options.

Are Water Softeners Bad for the Environment?

Various types of water softeners
A water softener has many benefits are an excellent option for homes with light to heavy hard water. Image Credit:

Traditional salt-based water softeners can negatively impact the environment through extensive sodium and water usage.

However, newer template-assisted crystallization systems effectively reduce hardness without high sodium discharge or water waste.

Choosing an eco-conscious softener tailored to household needs allows for sustainable soft water.

Key Points

  • Salt softeners increase wastewater sodium levels, degrading aquatic ecosystems that receive it.
  • Regenerating resin beads wastes 15-20 gallons of water per cycle, straining limited supplies.
  • Salt-free alternatives like template-assisted crystallization use natural ingredients instead of sodium.
  • Magnetic and electric softening reduces salt use but may not remove pre-existing hardness.

How Do Traditional Salt Systems Work?

Inforgraphic explaining how water softeners work
A water softener is a type of filtering appliance that removes calcium and magnesium from the water. Image Credit: Spruce

Traditional ion exchange water softeners use resin beads charged with sodium or potassium ions.

Hard water mineral ions like calcium and magnesium trade places with the sodium on the beads.

This replaces the hard ions with soft sodium, softening the water.

After the beads are full of calcium and magnesium, a saltwater brine solution regenerates the resin beads so the process can repeat.

The washed-out mineral ions go down the drain.

What Are The Environmental Concerns Around Salt Softening?

Salt softeners require significant salt use, which increases sodium levels discharged to wastewater plants.

This sodium load harms ecosystems of lakes, rivers, and estuaries.

It also requires wastewater facility upgrades.

Regenerating resin beads with salt also uses substantial water itself – 15 to 20 gallons per regeneration cycle.

This compounds water waste issues.

Do Salt Softeners Increase Water Pollution?


The resin beads can release tiny plastic microbeads during backwash cycles.

These beads bypass filters and contaminate waterways. However, newer resin materials reduce microbead discharge.

Salt brine discharges also raise salinity and total dissolved solids in wastewater.

This hinders water recycling and conservation efforts. Proper installation providing adequate drainage is key.

Are There Alternative Options Without Salt?

Yes, salt-free water softening systems are a more eco-friendly choice.

Template-assisted crystallization (TAC) uses food-grade ingredients to condition hardness ions so they do not cling to surfaces.

Magnetic water treatment and electric water softeners also work sans salt.

These prevent scale buildup but don’t remove existing hardness.

Overall, they conserve salt and water compared to ion exchange softeners.

Do Salt-Free Systems Have Drawbacks?


Template-assisted crystallization is more expensive initially.

And evidence of its effectiveness is mixed, with scale prevention lower than salt softening.

Magnetic softeners may reduce but not eliminate hardness.

Maintenance is also required.

And electric systems’ upfront costs are high.

Finally, none of these remove existing scale buildup like ion exchangers.

Should Specific Softeners Be Avoided?

If buying a softener, avoid systems requiring excessive salt, electricity, and water.

Manual models with timers reduce waste by regenerating only when needed versus daily.

Avoid systems purporting permanent hardness removal or magnetic devices with outlandish claims.

And confirm electrical demand is reasonable for a given household size.

Is water softener environmentally friendly?

Traditional ion exchange water softeners that use salt for regeneration are not the most eco-friendly systems.

They increase sodium discharge to wastewater facilities, which negatively impacts aquatic ecosystems.

Salt softeners also waste substantial water during regeneration cycles.

However, newer template-assisted crystallization (TAC) softeners are much more environmentally friendly.

They use biodegradable food-grade ingredients to condition water hardness instead of sodium ion exchange.

TAC systems save salt and water while still effectively preventing scale buildup.

So while old salt-based softeners have drawbacks, advanced salt-free options provide sustainable water softening.

Why are states banning water softeners?

Some states have introduced bans or restrictions on certain types of water softeners to reduce their environmental impact.

Traditional salt-based softeners increase sodium levels discharged in wastewater due to their regeneration process.

This heightened sodium harms bodies of water like lakes and rivers that receive the wastewater.

Some states have therefore prohibited salt softeners to protect aquatic ecosystems.

Banning high water-use systems also encourages the conservation of limited water supplies.

However, salt-free softeners are not restricted since they do not have these negative ecological impacts.

What is the downside of a water softener?

The main disadvantages of conventional salt-based water softeners are the extensive sodium and water use.

Large amounts of salt regenerate the resin beads which then discharge increased sodium into the wastewater system.

This salt harms bodies of water like estuaries and lakes.

The regeneration process itself also wastes 15-20 gallons of water per cycle.

Lastly, resin beads can release plastic microparticles over time that enter and pollute water sources.

However, salt-free softening systems avoid these downsides by using biodegradable ingredients instead of sodium ion exchange.

Key Takeaways:

  • While salt softeners have environmental downsides, alternatives like template-assisted crystallization offer more sustainable water conditioning without excessive waste.
  • Carefully evaluating options for your needs makes soft water eco-friendly.


How does a water softener work?

Water softeners use ion exchange resin beads charged with sodium ions. The beads attract and bind hardness mineral ions like calcium and magnesium. After the beads become saturated, a saltwater brine solution regenerates them by flushing the mineral ions out from the beads so the process can repeat. This ion exchange replaces hardness ions with soft sodium.

What are the pros of water softeners?

The benefits of water softeners include eliminating mineral scale buildup on fixtures and appliances, resulting in cleaner surfaces. Softened water also prolongs the life of water heaters and pipes by reducing corrosion. Clothes washed in softened water feel smoother and cleaner without mineral residue. And softened water improves the lathering and rinsing of soaps and shampoos.

What does a water softener discharge?

During the regeneration process, a traditional salt-based water softener discharges a brine solution containing the hard mineral ions that were removed from the resin beads. This wastewater contains elevated sodium levels from the salt used to recharge the beads. Some softeners may also release plastic microbead particles from older resin materials.

The team at GreenChiCafe is passionate about our natural world and preserving our planet for future generations.

Please check out our website for more content on living sustainably.


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