Green Cleaning: Washing Dishes with Less Water

What’s the most environmentally conscious way to wash dishes?

Where did you learn how to do housework? If you’re like me, you learned a little from a college roommate about how she gets her whites so clean, a bit from an old boyfriend about getting closer to the dirt while scrubbing floors. But for the most part, you learned from your family of origin. Which means that you may be cleaning your home using methods from a bygone era.

So what? How much has changed when it comes to getting things clean, you may ask. If anything we’ve gotten worse—not better—as a nation at keeping house. But one thing that has changed greatly is our attention to the environment. Phosphates have been taken out of most dishwashing detergents, chlorine bleach alternatives have hit the market, and everything we do has become about using as little water as possible.

This is especially true in Southern California, where water conservation is essential to survival. Livia Borak of the environmental Coast Law Group puts it this way, “San Diego is at the end of the pipe for both the State Water Project and Colorado River Aqueduct. With climate change exacerbating our water-supply shortages, we simply can’t afford to waste any water.”

I began thinking about this while watching a friend do dishes the other day. Her method was so foreign to me that I couldn’t even help her prep the plates. While I was rinsing, she was scrubbing, and we were both totally out of sync. I began to question which one of us was being more efficient and what, ultimately, is the most environmentally conscious way to do the dishes—a task I will admit to learning sometime at the end of the ’70s.

After some poking around the Internet, I found that using a fully loaded dishwasher, especially an energy-efficient one, is the greenest way to get your dishes clean. That’s what a recent survey by researchers at Bonn University in Germany concluded. The tested brand was Energy Star certified and estimated to have a nine-year life span.

When compared to a dishwasher, washing dishes by hand costs $431 more per year, used 5,000 more gallons of water, and takes about 231 hours of your personal time. So a dishwasher is about 37 percent more efficient compared to human hands.

But this is only true if you have an energy-efficient, state-of-the art machine. Regardless of what your home appliances are like, here is a breakdown of the greenest ways to wash dishes, which means using the least amount of soap as well as water.

Dishwasher method:

  1. Try to use an Energy Star-certified dishwasher that requires very little pre-scrubbing of dishes. Simply scrape off extra foods and place the dishes in the machine. If something has burned onto a pan, or there is protein cooked onto it, soak the pan and then do it by hand.
  2. If you have a dishwasher that requires some pre-cleaning of the dishes, first scrape with the utensils you used while eating. Fruits, veggies, grains and egg shells can go in the compost, while meats, dairy and other proteins (like tofu and eggs) go in the trash. Try not to use the garbage disposal because it takes so much running water to run.
  3. Next load the dishes that look clean enough into the dishwasher and pre-clean the others with a wet scrubber sponge. Again, try not to run the water and use its force as a food remover when a scrubber would work just as well. If you only have a few to do like this, running the water to get the last bits off is OK, otherwise fill one side of the sink, or a rinse basin, with just a couple of inches of water to remove anything left on the dishes and put them in the dishwasher.

To some, if you are going to go through all this work it’s easier just to wash these dishes by hand in the first place. Also, some people do not own a dishwasher.

 Hand-washing method:

  1. Fill one side of a sink, or a rinse basin, with very hot water (if it isn’t hot, you won’t be able to get maximum suds for minimum soap) and just 1/2 teaspoon of soap. Scrub the dishes, start with the cleanest dishes first (glasses) and finish with pots and pans. To avoid greasy dishes, make sure to add a little more soap once the suds seem deflated.
  2. Then, most environmental sites I read suggested putting the dishes in a rinse basin (or other side of the sink) filled with warm to hot water, changing the water when required.
  3. For some this seems like rinsing dishes in dirty water after a short time. If you feel this way, rinse the dishes under running water but do it quickly and in an organized fashion. Once you start using less soap, you will find you need less rinsing.

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