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