Thursday, January 27, 2011

Dirty Dishes: Killing One Bird With Two Stones...

...wait, that's not very eco-friendly. Ummm... feeding two birds with one seed! That's better :)

They say washing dishes in the dishwasher, especially an energy efficient model, saves water. I beg to differ. It's all in the way it's done, and especially what's done with the water afterward.

Most dishwashers use approximately 12 gallons of water and most energy saver dishwashers use approximately 4. Water estimates for handwashing dishes are much higher, often in the 15 to 25 gallon range. I'm guessing this estimate comes mainly from people who just let the water run and run and run.

I've tested this a few times. I've measured the water I used to wash and rinse an entire day's worth of dishes (as it's energy efficient to run the dishwasher with a full load, so I think it is with handwashing too. Save it up and do it all at once I say!) The total amount of water I average: 6 gallons... AND it is almost all put to a better use than simply going down the drain.

Ways to accomplish the dishes in an eco-friendly way abound on the net, no doubt. Here's my solution to added to the pot.


  • A biodegradable detergent--please note that nothing but biodegradable will do here--my product of choice at the moment is Ecover. I will eventually switch to a homemade detergent, but for now it is sufficient*
  • A double sink, or a single sink and a large bowl, basin or bucket
  • A pair of durable gloves (helps protects your hands from hot water)
  • A dish drainer (and a dish towel if you have someone willing to dry for you! But they dry just as good in the drainer without the extra help)
  • A washcloth with a scrubby surface--like this-- (no matter how green some sponges may be, if they are disposable, they are not as green as a good ol' cloth that gets thrown in the wash and reused)
  • A large bucket or bowl and a ladle or cup

THE STEPS (and btw... I will make this seem more complicated that it actually is... I can't help myself! Please keep that in mind):

  • Fill up one sink half full with hot water and a squirt or two of your soap. Don't use a lot of soap; you are not looking for a bubble bath here. You can add a bit more soap later as needed, along with a bit more hot water if the water cools while you work. Now, add dishes, cups, whatever. You know the drill! (To keep water use and nastiness to a minimum, I do not pre-rinse the dishes, nor do I use the disposal. I scrape whatever food is on the dishes --except meat and dairy--into a large empty yogurt container, to be tossed into the compost bin later.)
  • While those soak a bit, start filling up the other sink or basin halfway with cold water. This will be your rinse water (pictured below).
  • The next is obvious. Wash, dip in cold rinse water (making sure your dish/glass etc isn't covered in bubbles before you dip) and place in dish drainer.
  • If you finish one sink-full and you have more to wash, simply add another small squirt of soap and turn on the hot water for a couple seconds to warm it up and get a couple bubbles going.
  • Unless you have a gray water recycling unit under your kitchen sink, don't drain the water just yet. :) Now here's the BEST part!


You can water your plants, both indoor and out, with water from your kitchen sink. As a bonus, soapy water with a biodegradable soap can act as an eco-friendly pesticide for your garden. It is recommended that grey water not be used on anything leafy or growing in the ground that will be consumed raw (lettuce, carrots, etc.); however things like fruit trees and ornamental plants are perfectly fine.

I use a cup to fill a large bowl (pictured above) a few times with the water from both sinks and simply head outside to water whatever needs it. You could be slightly more elaborate and have a large covered basin outside to store the water, filling a watering can from the basin when you need it, or go all out and set up a more intricate above or below-ground irrigation system... and many other options in between. I prefer simple (for now!)

You can also flush a toilet with a bucket of water. The average toilet uses 1.5 to 3 gallons per flush. Quickly pour 4 cups of water into the toilet bowl and watch what happens :) If you don't have a garden, or find that you have more grey water than you can use in the garden, keep a bucket of grey water by the toilet.

A word on bacteria. Some people claim the only way to kill bacteria on dishes is with HOT water, such as in a dishwasher. And, others fear the bacteria that may reside on a washcloth. I have three things to say to that:

  1. Our great-grandparents (and many before them) managed somehow to survive this.
  2. They survived it well enough to spawn all of us... nearly 7 billion and counting
  3. Antibiotics, if shit from the washcloth actually hits the fan. (But seriously, lest anyone think I am pushing the use of powerful pharmaceuticals in place of safe hygiene, refer back to points 1 and 2. I think we sometimes fail to give enough credit to the thousands of generations that managed before us without all the trappings of convenience we've convinced ourselves we can't live without.)
Have any dishwashing conservation tips you'd like to share? :)

*(Ecover rebuts greenwashing claims)


  1. Good post, Renee! Lots of sound advice and I really don't have anything to add. We do use the dishwasher at our house. It's an energy efficient one and, of course, I always skip the dry cycle. I also don't rinse the dishes before putting them in. I like the idea of reusing your water. I hope to get back to that when spring rolls around. At one point I was saving my rinse water (for fruits and veggies), but I have nothing to water in the dead of winter :) I also took the additional step recently of insulating our hot water heater. We'll see if it has any noticeable effect on the gas/electric bill.

  2. Good post Renee. I have a dishwasher, and choose not to use it. I have been a bad girl and haven't been reusing the water however. Most people I see using a dishwasher, wash their dishes before placing them in the dishwasher. Such a waste.

  3. Hey Nick and T :) Yep, when I used the dishwasher I'd always skip the dry cycle too. We stopped using it about 3 years ago, not for eco reasons initially but because ours was broken (military housing). They guy came out and "fixed" it. Rather than have maintenance in my house again, I decided it was the perfect opportunity to try something else. I didn't re purpose the water back then, and my other half doesn't when he does the dishes. When we move soon, I'm going to make it easier for everyone by having a bucket and basin system so the water can be stored but he (and the kids) don't have to decide where it goes if they don't wanna.

    Let me know how that goes with the insulated water heater :) I would LOVE an under the sink water heater. Instant hot water, less waste.

    Ever thought about a grey water recycling system? I'm thinking you could install one directly to the dishwasher, maybe even DIY that sucker to save on expense :)

    Yep T, every dishwasher we've had, we've HAD to pre-rinse (practically wash) the dishes beforehand or all the food would get flung around and crusted on all the stuff on the top rack. Crappy.

  4. I understand, from an entomology savvy friend, that soapy water is a good deterrent for several varieties of bugs. Does dumping soapy water on plants prevent bugs from doing their evolutionary job in helping out those plants?

    Nice to see you managed to squeeze a kitty in there. While I don't have a problem with kittens in the dishwasher, they would get squeaky clean, there might be complaints from the humane society...

  5. Here's my novice gardener reply: most beneficial bugs are predators and, like the other winged predators (hawks) they swoop down to kill their prey rather than hang out together. The bugs we don't want, that kill the plants, tend to reside on the plants themselves.

    If you see a ladybug (beneficial) on a plant, water the ground instead of on the plant (since that's where the plant needs the water anyway).

    That all being said, I was able to save my sunflowers from pesty pests by watering the plant itself with slightly soapy sink water.

  6. I'm sorry, did you just suggest I do major plumbing work??? Be careful waht you wish for :) Actually I did just install a dual flush system on the toilet to save water when you need less oomph. A few years ago I put it a new kitchen sink. Took several days and about 9 trips to the hardware store to get everything right and stop the leaks, but it still works today (somehow)!

  7. LOL yes I did! I dare ya :p

    Dual flush toilet is awesome. I'd love one of those. Will add to my Wish List