Aired on Market Place: November 17, 1998
They look like hockey pucks, CDs, golf balls and flying saucers, and those who make them say they'll clean your clothes as good as any detergent. But do laundry discs -- those detergent-free, environmentally conscious washing aids -- really work?
It's an emergency most of us have experienced: all ready for a big laundry, and no detergent.
Not a problem for Lynn Kreisz. These days, she does her laundry without detergent. Instead she just tosses in a plastic disc, called the Earthsmart Laundry CD. It's the latest modern washday miracle.
The firms selling discs like the Earthsmart say the product changes the structure of the water by some miraculous technology.
"I have absolutely no idea what it does," Kreisz says. But "it does definitely do something to my laundry because clothes that I put in are coming out reasonably clean."
The makers of the Laundry CD claim it uses something called "structured water technology." They have "restructured" the water, they say, and this allegedly cleans clothes through what they call "electrovibrational resonance."
The disc is supposed to be good for 2500 washes over several years.
Kreisz's sister, Sheryl Thiessen, was impressed. She decided not just to buy the product, but to sell it. She became a distributor for the company, One Source Worldwide. It promised easy riches.
"I wanted a little bit of extra income in an easy way with an easy product to sell," says Thiessen.
The disc costs $130 -- a daunting amount at first blush, but Thiessen believed it was worth it.
"Well, if you're going to have it do your laundry for seven years I thought it was a good deal."
Thiessen bought $1,300 worth of the discs, hoping she could sell them all for $1,600. But when she received her supply, it was now called the Ultra 7 Laundry Master System. It had a disc that looked identical, plus something called a bionic enzyme cleaner to put in the wash with it.
"The very first laundry load ... looked brighter to me and so I was impressed," Thiessen says. "But over time I found if I was using exclusively the Ultra 7, the laundry in general came out a little bit duller and a little bit smellier."
She reasoned the first load looked so good because the soap residue from previous loads helped clean the clothes. But with successive washes, she says, "I had noticed that my whites were getting greyer."
The makers claimed the Ultra 7 disc was filled with trillions of magnetic particles and was a spinoff of NASA technology.
The company says this next generation in clean laundry was originally developed for NASA and involves liquid magnets -- the smallest known magnetic particles in the world. NASA, the company says, granted exclusive rights to an American firm to further develop the technology and the result is the Ultra 7 Laundry Master.
We found out that One Source does buy magnetic fluids from a company called Ferro Fluidics, which was licensed by NASA in the 1960s to develop magnetic technology in fluids, to stabilize rocket fuel in zero gravity.
But the fluids had nothing to do with cleaning clothes.
Ferro Fluidics wrote us, stating "We do not know the mechanisms by which their system is supposed to work..."
Thiessen's laundry disc eventually cracked and leaked fluid, what looks like a brown, rusty water.
Worried about what the stuff really was, she called someone above her in the network of One Source sales agents, to find out if it was safe.
Each agent like Thiessen is supposed to bring in new agents. Then they get a percentage of the money earned by those they recruit. It's called multi level marketing, and it operates much like a pyramid.
Sheryl ended up talking to a pig farmer in North Dakota, who was no help at all.
"I contacted the company to try and get my money back but of course I haven't heard anything from them," she says.
There are a lot of variations of laundry discs on the market, mainly advertised on the Internet. Many of them try to recruit multi level marketing agents.
They usually push the environmentally friendly aspect of their products, and most make elaborate scientific claims -- one company says their disc "potentates" water.
We decided to try to find someone at the top of a laundry disc network, to answer some questions about these claims. The trail led us to Las Vegas, Nevada.
Vegas is perhaps the perfect setting for things that seem wonderful and exciting until you look at them in the cold light of day. Multi level marketing operations can be like that.
Some of these operations promise a lot of easy money -- a lot like gambling -- and many people end up being soaked. And it's the one-armed bandits at the top of the operation, or pyramid, who make the fortune.
Several companies selling plastic laundry discs have been targets of warnings, criminal complaints and fraud prosecutions in the United States.
The Nevada Attorney General, for instance, developed a case against a company called Dynamic One Worldwide for deceptive trade practices.
Dynamic One, which sold something called the Laundry Clean Ring, was charged with failure to substantiate claims that it used "structured water technology" to improve the cleaning power of water.
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