An Eco-Friendly Dish Washing Routine

May 28, 2020

Is it just me, or are there a whole bunch of extra dishes lately? They’re rising out of the sink and colonizing my tiny counter in every direction.

Coronavirus hasn’t really caused my family to eat more at home. Restaurant food isn’t typically better quality than home-grown, and eating out is fun but really expensive. So mostly, we don’t. No, my dish profusion began when I started going to the store just once a month. I’ve been baking delicious blue cornbread and frying blue tortillas with our home-grown corn, and oh, the many dough-coated dishes that have resulted! As long as I’m washing and washing I may as well do it gently, on the crystal but also on the ecosystem.

Truthfully, changing the wash routine is not as beneficial for the planet as overhauling diet or voting for Earth-friendly policies. Tweaking our sink habits won’t offset that new SUV because dishes just aren’t in the same tier. Also, many of us are dealing with much more important problems right now.

But sometimes when things are out of my control, when it’s impossible to tackle big stuff because the money isn’t there and restrictions are pushing from all sides, it feels really good to make a small change that is under my control. Especially if it’s something I’m staring at heaps of.

If you’re game, here’s how I lightened the impact of my dish routine.

1. I diluted the dish soap

I just cut it with water by about 5 times. Simple as that. It works better, and takes us over a month to use a bottle.

I recently experimented with making my own dish soap, and I wasn’t very impressed. My grocery store carries several which claim zero-waste manufacturing, 100% recycled container and plant-based ingredients, so for the moment I’ve turned my attention to other things.

baby goat

New baby goats: always more interesting than tweaking soap recipes.

If you have a tried-and-true dish soap recipe using very common ingredients, I would like to hear it. On my latest monthly grocery trip there was not a single package of paper product available, and dish soap had joined the many things with a one-per-customer-please sign. Next month there may be none.

2. I ditched the plastic sponge

I once went to the little Caribbean island of Eluthera, which is so sparsely visited that spotting anybody else’s footprints means you’re on a crowded beach. There is crystal clear blue water, coral and turtles aplenty. And about two thousand plastic tampon applicators resting on the otherwise pristine sand.

Since recycling is a farce, anything plastic I discard could end up choking the turtles. I used to buy plant-fiber sponges (which come wrapped in plastic), until I discovered the magic of loofah.

I was gifted some seed and then neglected it for years, until I needed a fast-growing vine to protect my summer kitchen from the murderous North Carolina sun. I planted the loofah skeptically, but it thrived and made dozens of huge fruits! Some we ate green, some we fed to the goats, and some we dried and peeled for dish sponges.

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Loofah vines just covered my house last summer.

I didn’t think the delicate-looking things would survive one washing session, but they hold up longer than any store-bought sponge. I can’t believe I didn’t know about this earlier. I think I thought loofah were some sort of sea monster, when in reality they’re a beautiful star-flowered cucurbit with so many different uses.

I do still have two plastic dish brushes, one in the barn and one in the kitchen, which I’ll replace with something compostable when they fail. It’ll be a while because they get used so infrequently. The kitchen solution is going to be part of a loofah stuck on a stick. I’m not sure about the barn solution yet. I, too, am a work in progress.

3. I ditched the heat

Much of the impact of washing dishes is in the energy used to heat the water. I’ve used un-hot water for years (and only got sick that one time I ate the sketchy fridge shrimp), so I’m pretty convinced heat just damages my hands without benefiting my health. Surgical instruments need sterilized; cooking instruments usually do not. There’s just no way of keeping any surface microbe-free for long, and there are serious consequences to trying.

See, most microbes are neutral, and a few are beneficial. They can’t do you any harm, but if you clear them off you open a niche for potentially harmful species to thrive. As Ed Yong writes in I Contain Multitudes, sterilizing too much can cause more illness, both infectious and autoimmune. It’s the same reason we often get tummy troubles or yeast issues after taking antibiotics. (Of course if you’re immunocompromised, only you and your doctor can figure out what’s best for you.)

In the winter we draw hot water off the wood stove. Since it’s practically free of both impact and cost, I use it for the dishes. In the summer we shower in the garden, and I use lukewarm water out of the cold tap for dishes. Some things are a little harder to get clean in lukewarm, so I soak. I wash the lids of my pyrex containers twice. I cook with local pastured lard which has a high affinity for plastic and silicon, so it does take a little attention to get it off. But only for a moment.

More important than getting the dishes sterile is getting them dry afterwards, so the little bit of left-behind bacteria (harmful or neutral) doesn’t multiply to high numbers before tomorrow’s breakfast. We use a dish rack.

4. I embraced the trickle

I arrived at my dish washing procedure when I moved to a dry cabin on the high bank above the Tanana River outside Fairbanks, Alaska. If you’ve never heard of a “dry cabin,” it’s just any dwelling without running water. There are many in Fairbanks.

At the time I was employed on a vegetable farm, living in a wall tent and doing my washing in the farmer’s house. This was fine except the wall tent was not even remotely mosquito-proof. I wanted to work the Saturday market but my boss wouldn’t let me interact with customers because I looked like I had something horrible and possibly contagious.

The cabin had been unoccupied for many years, but after I patched the broken window and cleaned up the shattered glass, it was cozy and bug-tight. To get there from the farm I hiked down past the rows of cabbages and carrots, through a spruce swamp and up a very steep hill. There was a propane stove, a 20-gallon water barrel and an incredible view over hundreds of miles of boreal forest toward Denali.

For a while I carried washing water up from the farm, but farm work is tiring and I did not enjoy hauling anything extra up the hill at the end of the day. I set a plastic trash can under the cabin’s downspout to collect water. First I was cautious, only using it for cleaning up dust and spiders. Then I used it for dishes and cooking, and no one died. By the end of the summer (after repeatedly forgetting to fill my water bottle before hiking home) I was drinking it, potential bird poop and all. I don’t recommend that, but I survived.

Still, it wasn’t infinite water, and it wasn’t hot because I wasn’t going to haul unnecessary propane. To wash, I sat on the floor under the barrel’s spigot with a basin. The dishes got a splash of water. They got a scrub with soap. They got rinsed off in a trickle from the spigot, and tossed up on a towel on the counter. They got plenty clean enough.

Did that take longer than rinsing under a torrent of hot water? Sure. By about three minutes. I gradually gave up the notion that dishes are a detestable chore to be finished as quickly as possible, and recognized how nice it was to have a quiet moment and get my hands good and clean (not easy otherwise, given the farm work).

This method worked just as well when I rented a decaying 1950s mobile home with running water but no heater. It worked when I lived in the back of my truck in the Arizona desert with a five-gallon water jug for two people. It works in my little farm house to this day.

My life is so easy now that water just flows out of the tap, infinite clean water that definitely doesn’t have any bird poop in it. But cleaning and pumping and disposing of that water has an environmental impact, and a financial one, too. I’ve measured myself to use between two and three gallons per load, two loads per day, which is all the dishes for my family of four. This is a small part of how we’ve cut our water usage by 90% compared to the average around here.

What about dishwashers? Aren’t they supposed to be better than hands? I’ve read several studies “proving” that a dishwasher is more efficient than hand washing. Please, if you’ve seen one where the methods section isn’t a joke, send it to me!

See, in science, the question really matters. Asking good questions isn’t easy, and asking bad ones is worse than useless. Studies of dish washing purport to ask, “Which is more efficient, hand washing or machine washing?” while actually asking, “Under what circumstances does machine washing beat hand washing?” Do you see the problem there?

Some studies take into account the embodied energy in the machine itself, but they use the newest, most efficient machines, which are not what most people have (and if I buy one, I’ve incurred the impact of manufacturing a new machine). I haven’t seen any study using the most efficient hand techniques because they’re trying to sell machines, not reduce impact. Every one I’ve read was funded by Whirlpool or similar.

Now, I am never saying I know what’s best for every single body out there. My mom has carpel tunnel. For her, the dishwasher is an essential ability aid, saving a lot of smashed dishes. My friend has 15 people in her household, and they fill a dishwasher every time they have a snack.

But when I had a dishwasher I used more water, more electricity and more of my time, as well as spending more money. No thanks. I think it’s better to ask: “What’s the best compromise between impact and comfort for my particular family?” We ask ourselves this all the time, in many different contexts, and our answers may be different from yours. That’s fine. Either way, it’s a very useful question.

It’s such a small thing, cleaning the plate we eat from. But even with the littlest things there are wasteful ways to operate, and there are resilient ways. As I go through my life one area at a time, one process at a time, I find that changing my habits not only lowers my impact, it also usually costs me less money and sometimes even makes me happier. That’s worth it.

Do you have any favorite dish hacks? What other little processes have you changed with good results?

Kara Stiff

Kara Stiff

I have a BS in Sustainable Agriculture from the University of Maine, and I worked on sustainability issues in Native Alaskan communities through Cooperative Extension before moving to North Carolina. My goal with my writing and in my life is to inspire others to think critically about their choices in order to build communities that are happier, healthier and gentler on the planet.

Tags: building personal resilience, water use