Your mission, if you choose to accept, is to focus on being master of your dishwasher: getting it to do its best to serve you with clean dishes and serve the environment by using the least energy and resources possible.
1. Cut down on the detergent you use. (click to skip down)
2. Exchange your Jet Dry for a white vinegar rinse. (click to skip down)
3. Rinse your dishes with pre-used water. (click to skip down)
4. Only run the dishwasher FULL. (click to skip down)
5. Challenge your dishwasher: can it go no pre-rinse or no heated dry? (click to skip down)
6. Purchase greener dishwasher detergent. (click to skip down)
Choose just one or two of the above, depending on the habits you already have with your dishwasher.
In case you’ve been on the edge of your seat since reading about the cost of running kitchen appliances, it turns out that statistically, running a dishwasher uses only 50% of the energy and a small fraction of the water that hand dishes do, along with less soap (source). Unless you have an ancient dishwasher or run it half full, you would have to be extremely careful to use less water to hand wash your dishes.
There are a lot of theories about dishwasher use. I have friends on opposite ends of the spectrum.
One friend seeks simplicity and the solidarity of the manual art of doing dishes. It is a spiritual choice for their family and one they feel strongly about. I used to feel guilty that I used my dishwasher, but I realized not everyone is called to do the same thing. I am called to go overboard making homemade food for my family, and I would be a very crabby person if I had to do MORE handwash dishes. There are a lot of things already that I don’t put in the dishwasher.
Another friend literally puts EVERYTHING in the dishwasher – from pots and pans to measuring cups, cheese grater…my jaw hit the floor watching her throw every last dish from dinner in the dishwasher. I was afraid the cat might be next! Their machine runs twice a day for a family of four, and we run ours about every other day but do hand dishes every day, too. So it’s a tradeoff.
While I know people at both extremes, I’m a middler (although some would call my penchant to pre-rinse NOTHING a bit extreme. But hey – my dishwasher can handle it. I’m going to put it through the steps.) You have to find what works for you. Here are some ideas:
Most of us use more than the necessary amount of detergent in our dishwashers. Of course, the dishwasher companies tell you to put in a full cup (or even more than that). They get along quite well with the companies that sell the detergent. Too much detergent can leave a film on your dishes (enter Jet Dry, see below).
Test out what your dishwasher can handle. I can get away easily with half the recommended amount. My grandma only uses a few teaspoons. We never fill the extra cup. Testing this out won’t cost any time or money, and will only save money and “stuff” going into the environment. If you’re worried about baked on food, run the cycle without the heated dry.
Jet Dry is deemed “necessary” for most new dishwashers. Mine even came with a sample and coupons. Jet Dry is also a chemical that remains on your dishes (it’s added during the rinse cycle), and it’s certainly on the expensive end of cleaning products. If you use it, try plain white vinegar in your Jet Dry dispenser instead. Coupled with using the proper amount of detergent, you should be pleased with the results.
This is another easy one. You just have to change your habit: put your dishes, either from dinner prep, baking, or clearing the table, into your sink as you continue working. The act of washing your hands or getting a washcloth wet to wipe the table down will provide water enough to do a fairly good job of loosening the gunk (or creating an environment to soak pots) without wasting a drop. I am not successful at doing this every time I clean up, but when I do, I am grateful for that much less water wasted.
Apparently, only about 2/3 of us in America do this. I am almost militant about having a FULL – and I mean FULL – have you noticed the capital letters here? – dishwasher every time it’s run. Does this look full?
It’s not. We lasted two more meals, breakfast and lunch, before I ran it:
If you’re from my generation or thereabouts, you’re familiar with the old video game Tetris. Use those skills to load your dishwasher!
Keep in mind “The average dishwasher uses 6 gallons of water per cycle; the average Energy Star-rated dishwasher uses 4 gallons per cycle, and their energy use ranges from 1.59 kWh per load down to 0.87 kWh per load.” (source) That’s not much, so use it to your advantage.
This step is “Making Strides” because there’s some trial and error involved, and you may have to (gasp!) re-wash some dishes. However, I believe in making my appliances work hard for me, so I want to challenge you to see what yours can do. The dishwasher that came with my house did a fairly good job: I learned that it couldn’t really handle melted cheese, eggs, or potatoes. Pretty typical. When it died and we had to purchase a new one, I was determined to run it through its paces. I announced that no dish was to be rinsed – not even a little! – for the first week of our new dishwasher’s term. I wanted to see what it could do.
My friend watched me loading once and said, “I should take a picture! That’s like a commercial.” That pretty much says it all. We don’t rinse at our house. Not even a little. My dishwasher rocks! It can handle anything, even ground flax seed. It is not even close to a top-of-the-line model, in case you’re getting envious. It’s about second from the bottom at Sears. So challenge your dishwasher! See what it can do without you.
I recently tested running the thing without heated dry, and I was shocked. I don’t know how, I don’t know why, but Golly Gump, it was all still dry! So we’re saving a few cents a load and some carbon emissions now, 15 percent on total dishwasher energy use or up to $20 a year. We don’t do heated dry anymore. What can your dishwasher do? If you’re really committed to this but your machine isn’t tough enough to dry without you, just prop the door open overnight or while you’re at work and let everything air dry.
Dish soap is pretty toxic, and an open dishwasher door is right down where my babies crawl and explore, so I made a huge time investment looking for a safer alternative that will still clean the dishes and won’t break the bank. I first tried equal parts Borax and baking soda, and it resulted in too much food left on the dishes and truly AWFUL cloudiness on the glasses, many of which only had water in them to begin with. It was unacceptable. Adding vinegar to the rinse cycle made a huge improvement, but we still weren’t thrilled with the cleaning results. Then I read this about Borax (read under “risks) and decided it might not be a safer (or much more frugal) alternative anyway! Bummer.
We’ve also used Shaklee dishwasher detergent, which works fine, but it’s so much more expensive than the store-bought stuff.
After much more trial and error I’ve compiled all my results into one post for you to help you choose a natural detergent that will work for your family.
- Seeking a Natural Dishwasher Detergent that Isn’t a Miserable Failure
- Homemade Dishwasher Detergents Recipes That Really Work
- Review of a commercial detergent that worked great for us
You might also like to read about my favorite natural and non-toxic household cleaners.
Need More Baby Steps?
Here at Kitchen Stewardship, we’ve always been all about the baby steps. But if you’re just starting your real food and natural living journey, sifting through all that we’ve shared here over the years can be totally overwhelming.
That’s why we took the best 10 rookie “Monday Missions” that used to post once a week and got them all spruced up to send to your inbox – once a week on Mondays, so you can learn to be a kitchen steward one baby step at a time, in a doable sequence.
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