If you’ve got reusable dishes, utensils, cups, bowls, pots and pans and other kitchen items, you have to clean them. How you clean them, however, can be up for debate.
Some people are adamant about hand-washing their dishes while others can’t imagine life without a dishwasher.
Surprisingly, the first dishwashers were invented in the mid-to-late 1800s. After several ineffective versions were created by different people, Josephine Cochran received a patent for a hand-operated version that used water pressure in 1886. But dishwashers didn’t catch on in private homes until the 1950s and didn’t become common until closer to the 1970s and 1980s.
Those that grew up without a dishwasher might cling to their hand-washing routine like food clings to a dish, but is that the greenest way to wash a dish? Does it save water?
The Winner: Dishwasher Vs. Hand-Washing
The winner in the dishwasher versus hand-washing debate is the dishwasher.
A dishwasher uses much less water than hand-washing dishes in your sink. Today’s dishwashers work like car washes, as USA Today explains. If you thought your dishwasher fills up with water while running, that’s not the case. Instead, items are sprayed down through several cycles, using a small amount of water that is reused throughout the process.
A USA Today test in 2021 that collected and measured the amount of water used in hand washing calculates that it uses 3.5 to 5 times as much water as a dishwasher.
While there is an environmental impact to manufacturing, shipping and running a dishwasher, the amount you save in water and heating costs is met within two years of using an Energy Star model, according to the Department of Energy.
An article from the taskmaster platform Angi cites the Alliance for Water Efficiency’s statistics on water use for a dishwasher versus hand-washing. A less efficient dishwasher uses 10-15 gallons a load on average. An Energy Star dishwasher uses closer to 3.5 gallons.
Faucets pump out an average of 1.5 to 2 gallons of water a minute. Angi writers estimate hand-washing dishes consumes 9 to 27 gallons depending on how you hand-wash your dishes: soaking dishes versus running the water constantly while cleaning uses less water, for example.
Sustainability blog Treehugger concludes that while it is possible to be more efficient during hand-washing, in terms of average water heater usage and energy efficiency of dishwashers as well as how fast you can hand wash a dish — it’s pretty tough.
Other Reasons Why A Dishwasher Is Better
Another reason not to hand wash? Germs. The hottest faucet water isn’t likely as hot as your dishwasher can get with its internal heating mechanism.
Not only that, but kitchen sponges are bacteria magnets. While you can sanitize your kitchen sponges in the microwave or in your dishwasher, not everyone does that. If you use a washcloth, you may throw those in the laundry regularly, but now that’s another item you’re washing.
You also should avoid washing your dishes in cold water whether you’re hand-washing or using a dishwasher. The Spruce lists numerous reasons why, including the fact that hot water is more effective at loosening stuck-on food and grease, cuts down on drying time, and requires less soap to get dishes clean.
Reasons To Hand-Wash Over Using A Dishwasher
So are there reasons you should hand-wash certain kitchen items?
You’ll want to hand wash non-stick cookware, cast iron, wood, sharp knives, and delicate items you’re worried could break or be damaged. Choice Magazine has a handy chart of other things not to put in your dishwasher.
You might also want to hand-wash dishes, cups, utensils, bowls and other items if you don’t use very many of them. That’s because food dries on dishes left to sit in a dishwasher while it waits to fill up, and that can make it harder to get off.
Your kitchen might be too small for a dishwasher. Or you might live in a place where you can’t have one installed, like a rental apartment. However, you also might consider a portable or countertop dishwasher before ruling a dishwasher out completely.
If you do hand-wash dishes, the “greenest” way to do so is to wash all your dirty dishes in hot, soapy water at one time. This can mean filling up a bin or one side of a two-sided sink with soapy water. Running hot water constantly while washing dishes is the least eco-conscious way to do it.
We also have some suggestions for alternatives to the traditional sponge that will cut down on germs while still cleaning well.
Ways To Make Dishwasher Use Even Greener
If you want to lower your impact on the environment as much as you can, here are additional tips:
To make sure your dishwasher is as effective and eco-friendly as possible, buy an energy-efficient one.
Load it fully before use. Fully loading a dishwasher can save 1,000 gallons of water a month, according to Treehugger.
Don’t pre-rinse your dishes. A thorough scrape of your dishes into the trash is good enough. Pre-rinsing wastes water and isn’t necessary for the way most dishwashers and dishwashing detergents are designed today. A rinsing agent helps, too.
Run your hot water faucet in your sink until it gets warm, just before turning on your dishwasher. This helps your dishwasher start with hotter water so it can run at its best temperature.
Don’t use the quick wash cycle for your dishwasher. That setting often uses more water and raises the dishwasher’s internal water temperature higher.
Home Made Simple says you can skip the even hotter sanitize setting unless your dishes aren’t getting clean enough, or if you have allergic or immuno-comprised people in your home.
You’ll also want to regularly clean your dishwasher so it’s running at its best. We’ve got an explainer on that.
Treehugger offers other tips like using green dishwashing detergent and running dishwashers at night when utility companies use off-peak billing.
If you follow the most efficient methods of using a dishwasher, you can save a lot on water and heating costs and use less water in the process.
On a side note, sometimes sanity-saving dish methods trump any use of reusable cups, plates, bowls and utensils. “How to Keep House While Drowning” author KC Davis is a proponent of using paper plates when life is feeling overwhelming. Parents with kids at home, we’re talking to you. If you want to cut down on your environmental impact, go for the most biodegradable paper plates over coated plastic ones.
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