The contentious issue of dishwashing

September 2, 2011

This morning I sat on the computer to write down some ideas that went through my head yesterday before I fell asleep, and as I started writing I thought: Damn it, I cannot always write about contentious political issues, annoying friends and foes alike, I should write about issues that are not disputed, I should write a blog post that is uplifting and that doesn’t offend anybody! But as it turned out, today is not the day for such a text, maybe I try it tomorrow again. The theme of this post seems benign and uncomplicated, yet it is hotly debated — at least in my family.

A very close member of my family sees the dishwasher as a symbol of female emancipation and social progress. Without these helpful machines the women would be bound to the kitchen like in the dark ages and they would have to spend all their free time with the tedious, monotonous, mind-numbing, and also unhealthy task of cleaning piles of dishes by hand. Without dishwasher women would be at the mercy of their husbands and trapped forever in the role of a subordinate, enslaved, second class human being.

I offered to wash all the dishes but until now my offer has been rejected and defamed as an insidious plot to roll back the freedom and progress women have fought so hard for.

I was told many times by many people, that a dishwasher is more ecological than washing dishes by hand and that dishwashers save water and energy. I don’t believe that and if there was any serious research made about this issue I would like to know who funded this research.

One can make an assertion that is completely bogus, but if this assertion is repeated often enough and not constantly debated and rejected, it will eventually be transformed into common knowledge and accepted as a fact. Even if the assertion is disputed, it will be reported by mainstream media in its attempt to be “fair and balanced” and people after a while will get the impression that this assertion must have some merits and that there could be some truth into it.

(The policy of “fair and balanced” reporting is of course as bogus and apocryphal as many of the reported assertions, claims, allegations, prepositions and theses, but that is an issue for another post.)

Dear reader, you know now after the lengthy introduction that I don’t believe the claims, that dishwashers are more ecological friendly than washing dishes manually and I tell you why:

Someone has to manufacture the dishwasher, it doesn’t come from nowhere, it doesn’t fall from the sky. It is produced/assembled in a factory and the materials or pre-manufactured parts come from other factories or from steel mills or aluminum smelters or from chemical plants. It needs a lot of energy and materials and it causes a lot of pollution to make a dishwasher, and it needs additional energy and materials (packing) to transport the machine to a shop, to advertise it and to bring it into the home of the consumer. I doubt, that there was ever a serious and unbiased study who took all this into account.

The dishwasher needs electricity for heating the water and pumping/spraying it onto the dishes and the production of the special dishwasher detergent needs energy and resources too. Both production and use of the detergent cause environmental pollution.

In 2010 detergent makers reworked their formulas and reduced the phosphate content of the detergents. Phosphates pollute lakes, rivers and coastal areas of oceans. They create algae blooms and starve fish of oxygen, resulting in dead zones where no marine life is able to exist (while 146 dead zones were reported in the GEO Year Book 2003, a study in 2008 by Greenpeace counted already 406 dead zones in the worlds oceans.)

Reducing the phosphate in the detergents was a necessary and laudable move, the consumers though were not pleased with the diminished effectiveness of their dishwashers and many complained bitterly, that the pots and pans were gray, that aluminum was turning black, that glasses and cups had still fingerprints and lip prints on them, and everything was stained with disgusting black spots.

Some bought trisodium phosphate at the hardware store and mixed it into the detergent, others run the dishwasher twice. Many found out, that they had to clean and rinse the dishes before putting them into the dishwasher, a solution, which makes the whole process look comical because if they would just clean and rinse the dishes a bit more carefully they would not need the dishwasher at all.

Using a dishwasher efficiently and keeping costs down makes it necessary to fill the machine up completely. Small families who use not so many pans and plates will find this difficult and maybe put the dirty dishes into the washer and wait another day till the machine is full. This in not hygienic, because the food remainders will get infected with mould and bacteria which the dishwasher will not completely remove if it is finally turned on. The only solution is, to clean and rinse the dishes before putting them into the machine and that, as I stated in the paragraph before, makes the whole process look comical.

I avoid the dishwasher by using as few plates, pans, and bowls as possible, cooking without fat (this is indeed attainable), or not cooking at all. Following these rules is easy, because I’m a vegetarian and eat mainly bread, fruits, and vegetables.

The few bowls and plates that I use are soaked in cold water and after about half an hour rubbed and brushed with steel wool pads. I prefer the steel wool pads to sponges and scrubbers because they don’t get infested with fungi and bacteria and last nearly forever. When a bowl or plate is fat I remove the fat with a dish towel. Dish towels are cheap, they can be made out of old discarded clothes or bedclothes.

After rubbing and brushing the dishes I rinse them with cold water (in winter with warm water) and air dry them.

As I hardly use any cleaning agents except vinegar, alcohol, baking soda, and occasionally abrasive cleaners (Bon Ami or similar products containing feldspar), my kitchen is not completely free from any germs and does for sure not meet the standards of the aseptic area in a hospital. I have also to admit that the level of hygiene in my household is defined by my cats, which have their own idea about cleanliness (I wouldn’t go so far to say that they have a more leisurely attitude towards hygiene, they clean themselves all the time, but nevertheless they see things and do things different as we humans).

A vegetarian cuisine and mainly home grown food means less danger of salmonella, listeria or E. coli infections, therefore I can spare cleaning agents. Carnivores and users of industrial produced food are more at risk but they nevertheless should consider the environmental pollution and the danger of antibiotic resistance caused by cleaning chemicals.

The excessive use of cleaning agents will remove germs and create an antiseptic place. Everybody who lives there will be fine for some time but will not have a chance to strengthen the immune system and develop antibodies in the wake of a mild infection. Antibacterial cleaners often contain triclosan, a chemical, which is under scrutiny because several studies have shown that it alters hormone regulation in animals and causes drug resistance of microorganisms. In fact, all cleaning chemicals cause environmental harm and raise the danger of antibiotic resistance when they are discharged from the kitchen sink into the sewage plants and waterways.

Though the theme of this post may be contentious, dishwashing is not an issue that decides the future of mankind. This post could fit easily on any “green living”, “New Age”, “self help”, “don’t dig too deep” website. I am deeply apologetic for writing and posting it and I ask you to pardon me, relax, forgive, and forget.

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