Greener Pastures: Vail and the dishwasher debate |

Greener Pastures: Vail and the dishwasher debate

Cassie Pence
Vail CO, Colorado
Special to the DailyCassie Pence

VAIL, Colorado ” One of the most common questions asked of my green cleaning super hero of a husband is this: Should I wash my dishes by hand or in a dishwasher? People want to know which method uses less energy and less water, and let us not forget about soap, as toxins are the third factor to consider in this dishwasher debate.

Before this column, we hadn’t done any hard research on the matter. But intuitively, and with consciousness, this is how Captain Vacuum washes dishes:

1. All plates are scraped with a knife or spatula into the trash (or compost if you have one.)

2. Plates are not rinsed (unless there are stubborn pieces of cheese), but put directly in the dishwasher. Glasses follow suit.

3. After the dishwasher is full, but not too full because you want to let the water and soap reach all surfaces, he squirts a little bit of Seventh Generation dishwasher liquid into our machine and lets it rip, and we always make sure it’s on the air drying cycle.

4. For pans with crusted-on food, Captain Vac squirts a little bit of dish soap in the gunked up pot or pan, fills with water, puts back on the burner and brings to a boil. Then he shuts the burner off, and the food rises from the pan like magic. You can do this in the oven with non-burner friendly casserole dishes, too.

5. Finally, whatever non-dishwasher safe kitchen tools are left, he fills one side of the sink with a little bit of hot soapy water and the other side with a little bit of cool rinse water. Think like your camping as far as water conservation. Wash in order of cleanest to dirtiest in the left basin, rinse in the right. Then, set the tools to the side of the sink to air dry.

After consulting some of my favorite green experts, it turns out Captain Vacuum’s method of dishwashing is pretty much right on. But for those who prefer the black and white of green: Dishwashers, when used properly, are the way to go.

According to, who dove deep into the numbers affiliated with dishwashing, “it’s possible to use less water and energy by hand washing your dishes, but it’s not easy.” concurs, adding that doing full loads of dishes in an Energy Star, aka water-and-energy saving, dishwasher has been proven again and again to be more efficient than your typical hand-washer.

A study by a U.K. nonprofit Waterwise found that the average dishwasher uses between 3 and 4.5 gallons of water per load, while hand dishwashing can use more than 16 gallons.

So if cleaning ” or frugality ” has never been skills of yours, stick with the automatic dishwasher and work on mastering the various settings of your machine. Always fill it full and choose the air dry setting to save energy. When the wash cycle is done, open the door, pull out the racks and let the dishes dry. You will thank me later for the extra moisture in the house. And try it on the light-wash cycle to boost your savings even more.

Of course, if your dishwasher is a time machine taking you back to the ’60s or ’70s, you may want to pony up for a new one or pull out those yellow rubber gloves. The older the dishwasher, the lower its efficiency.

Even more important a choice than manual or automatic, what type of soap you use in the dishwasher can make or break your sustainability. Conventional automatic dishwasher detergents contain phosphates and chlorine. According to Annie Bond of, phosphates soften water and cause algae blooms in lakes and ponds. The production of chlorine can cause dioxin, a type of chemical that causes cancer, especially breast cancer, and is highly poisonous to the cells of our bodies, according to Johns Hopkins Hospital. Unfortunately, phosphates and chlorine also leave our dishes incredibly clean.

In the last several years, however, leading green brands have released several good alternatives. Consumer Reports prefer Biokleen, Ecover and Seventh Generation. Don’t expect as high a performance as your Cascade, but Seventh Generation does a pretty nice job.

Maybe our society needs to take a step back from its uber sterile standards ” instilled most likely by the marketing geniuses of Proctor and Gamble.

I recommend heeding these wise words, spoken by my friend when she was contemplating whether or not to rinse the dishes before loading them into her washer: “What’s the difference,” she said. “I’m just going to dirty them again, anyway.”

Freelance writer Cassie Pence is married to the superhero of green cleaning Captain Vacuum, AKA Tim Szurgot. Together they own Organic Housekeepers, a cleaning company that uses strictly organic, natural and nontoxic cleaning products. Contact her at

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