6 Rules for Greener Dishwashing

Learn how to wash dishes by hand—for times when a dishwasher isn't available or appropriate—and save the most water possible.

by Lisa Munniksma

6 Rules for Greener Dishwashing - Photo courtesy Sergio Alvarez/Flickr (UrbanFarmOnline.com) #greenliving #sustainability

In the house I share with two roommates, we call our dishwasher the fourth roommate. We pity him because while he is much appreciated, he is certainly overworked. With all of the from-scratch cooking and baking going on here, there are often large pots, heavy pans that have no business in the dishwasher, and sharp knives that require hand washing—plus all of the plates and mugs that didn’t make it into this load of the already overfull appliance.

Tackling a mess like this or the one you may have in your kitchen can be done with water conservation in mind, following these rules.

1. Hand Wash Big Items

Your spaghetti pot might fit in the dishwasher, but it’ll take up valuable real estate that could be occupied by six or more plates. It’s more water-wise to wash big pots like this by hand.

Other items that should be washed by hand, according to the American Cleaning Institute, include:

  • wooden items (like spoons and bowls)
  • silver and pewter
  • milk glass
  • china and other delicate dishware
  • hand-painted items
  • items with metal trim
  • cast iron
  • cutlery

2. Soak Pots and Pans ASAP

The longer that squash-and-cheese dish sits after coming out of the oven, the more glue-like the stuck-on food will become. Give it a tiny squirt of soap or a few shakes of baking soda and a bit of hot water to soften up ASAP.

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3. Wash Your Stack In Order

The American Cleaning Institute suggests washing dishes in order of cleanliness: glassware and flatware first; then plates and serving dishes; then cookware. I’ve always known to wash first anything that will come in direct contact with your mouth, then remaining glass items, and then items in order of cleanliness.

Save the greasy or bacteria-filled dishes for last. Don’t share wash water with a dish that contained raw meat or other potential pathogens. Drain and scrub the sink to eliminate leftover bacteria after washing the nasties.

4. Scrape, Soak, Wash, Rinse, Dry

Ideally, your sink will have more than one compartment. Even if it doesn’t, you can make this procedure work. Staying with a friend in The Netherlands, I was impressed that she used a plastic basin as one compartment and the sink itself as another—just one bit of excellent ingenuity I found in small living spaces in Europe.

The procedure:

  • Clean your sink or basin so there’s a basic level of cleanliness to start.

  • Scrape your food debris into your compost container. Don’t use your garbage disposal, as this is a waste of water and electricity and is rough on your plumbing. Your water use can decrease 50 gallons or more per month if you reduce your garbage-disposal use, according to the Glen Canyon Institute

  • Soak a sink (or basin) full of dishes in 110-degree-F, soapy water. Don’t let the water run down the drain as you’re doing dishes. Fill the sink once, and turn off the water. According to the Glen Canyon Institute, the smallest amount of dish soap necessary requires the least rinsing, so go easy on the cleanser.

  • Wash each item with a sponge or cloth and set the item in the second sink compartment, which should be full of hot rinse water. If you don’t have a second compartment, set the sudsy dishes on the counter for now. Drain and refill your water, of course, if it becomes greasy or unreasonably dirty.

  • If you had to set your dishes aside, clean the sink, place the still-sudsy dishes in the sink, and either rinse dishes individually with hot water, letting the rinse water run over the other items to reduce the time and water you need as you move down the line, or fill the sink with hot rinse water.

  • Some health professionals, such as those at the University of Florida Cooperative Extension, also recommend sanitizing dishes in water that’s 171 degrees F with a little bit of bleach. I personally only know one home that sanitizes dishes, and that’s for food safety reasons because they have a few milking goats, lots of raw-milk products, and many guests coming and going. (Incidentally, they alternate between bleach and peracetic acid so bacteria cannot build up a tolerance to either sanitizing agent.)
  • Remove your dishes from the rinse water or the sanitizing solution and put them in the dish rack to air dry. Dish towels can introduce more bacteria to a newly clean plate, so skip this last annoying step.

5. Use Fewer Dishes

Be a mindful chef, and reuse mixing bowls and measuring cups when possible. Be a less-wasteful water drinker, and keep the same water glass all day so you’re not washing a glass every time you want a drink of water.

6. Care for Your Sponges and Towels

One last health-conservation tip: Michigan State University Cooperative Extension says you should wring out your sponge or dish-washing towel after each use to reduce bacteria growth. When it starts to smell (one of my roommates calls this the “poop-towel” smell), it’s time to throw away the sponge or put the towel in the laundry. If you have a dishwasher, run your sponge through a cycle every few days to clean it.

No dish-washing tips will make hand washing more fun, but these will at least make it greener, saving water and your environmental conscience.

About the Author: Freelance writer Lisa Munniksma has traveled around the world to work on farms, ecovillages and a bakery where dishwashers don’t exist. She blogs weekly about ag news and opinion for HobbyFarms.com’s The News Hog and blogs every now and again about sustainable living, agriculture and food systems everywhere at www.freelancefarmerchick.com.


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