Q&A

Environmental impacts of washing dishes

By Cottage LifeCottage Life

Dishes-Ed_Townend

Photo by Ed Townend

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The Question

Which has less impact on the environment, washing dishes by hand or using a dishwasher?

The Answer

You really want the answer to be the dishwasher, don’t you? Surprise – it is, with some provisos. As long as there’s no pre-rinse (try scraping instead), new dishwashers are highly efficient and use much less water and detergent than even the most careful human washer, which means less grey water heading for the septic bed. Dishwashers can also be programmed to run at off-peak hours to reduce electrical demand. Old dishwashers should be replaced with newer energy-efficient models. A dishwasher with an Energy Star rating, for example, uses less energy than that old clunker.

Whether you hand wash or use the machine, you’ll make the least impact on the environment by choosing a biodegradable detergent that’s free of phosphates and chlorine. Phosphates, which are added to soften water, are also plant nutrients and encourage algae growth in lakes. Chlorine, added to detergents to kill bacteria, will temporarily zap the good bacteria in your septic so they can’t do their job of breaking down the sewage. Detergents for dishwashing by hand no longer contain phosphates, but many automatic dishwasher detergents still do. Chlorine can be found in many cleaning products, so read labels carefully. Your best choice is to use products certified by the EcoLogo program, guaranteeing they are environmentally friendly.


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