The Dish on Dirty Dinnerware | Seventh Generation
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The Dish on Dirty Dinnerware

Author: the Inkslinger

Dirty DishesDirty dishes. Everybody's got 'em. And it's pretty much environmental dogma that washing them in the dishwasher instead of by hand is the water- and energy-saving way to go. But is it? Treehugger peered deep into the issue and came up with our last best hope for a definitive answer: mostly. Maybe.

Though it doesn't much resemble what's in my own sink, the face-off was based on washing eight six-piece place settings and six serving dishes. If you put all that in your dishwasher, you'd wash the whole kit and caboodle with an average of just six gallons of water. Four if you have an Energy Star machine. That's how efficient dishwashers are, and since it's hot water that's a lot of energy and CO2 emissions saved, too.

The typical faucet, on the other hand, flows at about two gallons per minute, which doesn't give you much time to rinse those 54 items and still beat your dishwasher. In fact, you'd have just 4.4 seconds of running water to rinse each piece (and that assumes you're washing with a soapy sponge instead of a basin of sudsy water). Which means that unless you can be pathologically miserly with your tap water, a dishwasher is the way to go.

Of course, as with any eco-issue, your mileage may vary and there are plenty of nuances:

  • The older your dishwasher, the lower its efficiency, and the less true this verdict becomes
  • If you run your dishwasher when it's less than full, your water and energy user per piece will go up accordingly
  • Alternatively, shutting off the heated drying option or using the "light wash" cycle will boost your savings

The key here (and everywhere) is consciousness. Instead of remembering a bunch of how-to-do-it-better rules for each of our days' countless ordinary acts, it's simpler and more effective to just live as consciously as possible. If we pause to think logically for a second or two before we engage the stuff of life (Is the dishwasher full? Is it set to air dry? Did I hit the water-saving button?), we can find our way to green without carrying around a manual. You don't need to remember this post. You just need to remember that how you do your dishes matters and that applying some common sense before you begin will light your way.

The more we do things in a conscious way, the easier our going gets. After awhile we're unconsciously conscious, which is to say we don't even know we're doing it. When that happens, when the right thing becomes something we no longer have to think about, we'll have gotten where we need to go and taken the world with us. In the meantime, there are dishes to dirty and dishes to clean. And now we know a bit more about making that a happier chore.

photo: Brooke Raymond


indygirl picture
We took out our dishwasher about 1 1/2 years ago because it was starting to have "issues", leaving white residue on the dishes, not cleaning as well etc. For the first time in my adult life I do not have a dishwasher and I don't really miss it that much. It's nowhere near the top of my list of things to replace. A dishwasher was imperative for me when my four kids were all living at home, especially since I've always been a working mom. Now the two youngest are at home, but are 18 and 21 and some days we don't have formal meals, more "fend for yourself". On those days a dishwasher wouldn't be necessary anyway. I use Seventh Generation dish soap and feel we're doing our part for the environment.
dpodolka picture
I use white vinager for rinse-aid. I also just changed to 7th gen. dishwashing deter.- I cannot deal with harsh deter anymore due to headaches. These products have changed my life for the better. one must learn to use less product as to the major brands. I am so glad that my local grocery store now carries 7th gen. products. (Krogers) Many Thanks, Deborah Podolka
angibarnett picture
I love my energy star dishwasher, and I can say that I know I used more water when rinsing than the diswasher does on a full cycle. As for pre-rinsing, my dogs do a great job & save me the time & the water. For a rinse aid, cider vinegar works wonders, plus it is insanely cheap. So far I have used 7th gen dishwashing detergent almost exclusively, and with my "pre-rinse" and rinse aid, I am rarely left post-washing by hand.
ckeem picture
For the couple who were complaining about the detergent performance. Maybe you need to add rinse aid (aka earth friendly version of "Jet Dry")? Are you using hot water? I use the 7thGen Products and everything comes out just as good as any other product I've used. Or maybe its a water issue... CK
jsteier picture
1. Use the power of soaking, let a bowl or pot soak for a few mintues and then clean with the standing water. Do a quick rinse with cold water to remove any other excess. 2. Use any left over hot water that was used from steaming vegtables or cooking pasta etc. 3. When cleaning a container to recycle, put soapy water in the container, close the lid and shake, it will remove all the contents including anything on the inside of the top. 4. When rinsing anything, put a dirty dish in the sink so the water can be used twice. i.e. When rinsing out glasses or silver ware etc.. put dishes, serving utensils etc in the sink to get rinsed off passively. 5. My rule is if a plate or dish was not eaten off directly hand wash and put back in cabinet.
wiggle_nose picture
i used your liquid dishwasher detergent and found it performed poorly. it took clever manuevering (i.e. putting it in only when i had lightly soiled dishes) to finish off the bottle before i went out and bought another eco-friendly detergent that actually got the job done. after all, if you have to wash the dishes twice then you're not exactly conserving water...
stephiedorr picture
ditto lat3356. I have still to find an eco-friendly alternative to regular dishwasher detergent that seems to do the job well. if I use 7th Gen in my dishwasher, I often have to wash my glasses in the sink AGAIN b/c of the film and residue it leaves. here's an opportunity to improve your product!
ckeem picture
Great article, great thinking. If everyone just thought a little more about all of their daily habits it would have a huge impact! Although I am still annoyed constantly by the people racing toward red lights, I have found that if you use you're brain a little when you're driving you can save a lot of gas!! I know that has nothing to do with dish washing, but I'm just agreeing with the concept that if we all think a little more about all of our daily living, and tell others, we can have a huge impact! Chris K
Laney picture
Something that has not been mentioned. Even if you put the 6 glasses, dishes, etc. in dishwasher, chances are that there will be a or some pots and pans or certain things to wash by hand. I often figure that if I have to use some water to do those by hand, I will use the same water first to wash the cleaner things. Not sure how that fits in with your recipe for saving water with the dishwasher. Also, I thought I was told the dish washer uses 11 gallons of water. Not sure how old my dishwasher is, not ancient, not brand new, maybe 10 years.
Susan329 picture
I agree. It's funny that people can be so squeamish about rinsing dishes in a basin of water (i.e. reusing rinse water), when that's exactly what happens in your dishwasher where you can't see it. I also agree that 7th Generation dishwasher products are not as effective as major brands, but I suspect that has mostly to do with their using oxygen bleach instead of chlorine. I wish the choice weren't between handwashing, clean dishes or dioxin. What I usually do is use 7th Generation in alternate loads with major brand dishwashing products. The dishes get washed with chlorine bleach often enough that the stains don't get too bad, but I cut my chlorine usage in half, anyway.
reneec83 picture
I thought that I was rinsing quickly and not using to much water, so one day I decided to measure how much I used. I was surprised. I don't fill the sink with water at all, I just wet and and use a soapy sponge, re-wetting if necessary. Then I rinse quickly. The way I tested my water usage was to put the plug in the sink and see how full it got. I had to bail out some water into a bucket before I even finished. Then I bailed it all out into a bucket to measure, and......I filled a 5 gallon bucket, and what I handwashed was no where near as much as I could fit in my dishwasher. I really was surprised, I really thought I rinsed quickly etc... Anyway, I do still have things that I have to handwash, some pots and pans, wooden spoons and good knives, but everything else goes into the dishwasher now.
macdonald3 picture
I have to agree with lat3356. I am sorely disappointed with the dishwashing gel. I having to re-wash all cups and cutlery after a dishwasher cycle. Having clear glass plates helps me ignore the fact that they may need to be washed again also. Depise the fact that I am cleaning with chlorine and bleach with conventional , but my dishes are then clean. Love some of the other Seventh gen products though- they do the job.
yvonneLH picture
I'm miserly when handwashing dishes too, recycling water while I'm pre-rinsing food goop off. Call me weird, but I also turn the faucet off each time during the few seconds it takes me to place each just-washed dish into the dishwasher (only to air dry). That's got to count for something. I really feel like hand washing is the only way to get really clean dishes...if I don't waste water having to hand pre-rinse dishes before using the machine, then I end up having to re-wash several dishes that come out of it anyway. Our dishwasher is fairly new, but used only when our little family of 3 hosts a party and we create a ton of dirty dishes at a time.
lebuhdez picture
I agree with KLMaio. I can rinse most of the items I use daily (cups, plates, silverware, etc) in about 4 seconds or less. I never leave the water running while washing dishes.
KLMaio picture
It sounds like you are assuming a running faucet the entire time (!?) I fill a dishpan about 1/2 way with hot water and detergent. Wash everthing, place on rack, and rinse with hose once (except for a quick rinse of the inside of cups and glasses, over the dishpan, so that I capture the water for use on larger pots, which also get an inside quick rinse.) Everything air-dries on the rack. I could be wrong, but I'm guessing that this uses less water than even the most efficient machine....
lat3356 picture
I use many of your products for Laundry and cleaning and I really like them but I have to say the dishwasher detergent needs improvement. They just don't work as well as conventional detergents whereas most of your products work better than conventional. The gel works slightly better than the dry but it doesn't do the job. I'm sorry to have wasted my money on them and can't use them.