My husband will tell you there is plenty wrong with doing the dishes. If he had his way, he would never hand wash another dish ever again. In fact he is trying to convince me to put three, yes three!, dishwashers in our home when we build soon. I’m not converted on the idea yet. Aside from my husband’s aversion to washing dishes, there are actual environmental costs every time we fill the sink and squirt in the dish wash liquid. If you are interested in the environmental impact of washing the dishes, even if it is just to justify three dishwashers, then read on. 

Washing the dishes is something that most of us will do at least once every single day. Have you ever wondered what happens to the soapy water once you pull the plug? I certainly hadn’t. Most of us are blissfully unaware of the impact the simple act of washing a dish can have on the environment.

Dishwashing liquid contains a plethora of chemicals. Many of these chemicals are derived or manufactured by petrochemicals which is a limited and non renewable natural resource. The manufacture of the individual chemicals and the end product requires huge amounts of water and energy. It is then packaged in a container that is not biodegradable, requires more chemicals in its manufacture and is often tossed into landfill once empty. Often it is then shipped or trucked over distance to stores all over the country or world adding to its environmental footprint along the way. By the time it arrives at its final destination in your kitchen it already is on the environmental back-foot. And unfortunately it just gets worse from here.

Many dishwashing liquids contain phosphates.Phosphate is added to reduce spotting and film on dishes, as well as help remove food and grease, suspending them so that they are not redistributed back onto dishes. Phosphate is a naturally occurring mineral and is essential to plant growth. It is used as a fertilizer in the agricultural sector.  The problem with phosphate comes when there is too much of it entering the water ways. It causes an over growth of algae and plant life. This excess growth starves the river or lake of oxygen once that algae dies off. It reduces the availability of nutrients to fish and other plant life. This can lead to great loss of fish life. Some algae release toxins during the decaying process which also can cause death in fish and animals that drink from the affected water. A large part of the problem is caused from agriculture, however phosphates found in many of our cleaning and personal care products are certainly a contributing factor.

It is not just fresh water that is effected. One study found high levels of perfluorinated compounds, which are found in items such as the non stick coating in food packaging and in carpet stain repellants, in loggerhead sea turtles. The same properties that make them tough at resisting stains and spills, also makes them remain in the environment. These chemicals then get filtered through creatures such as mussels and clams which then get eaten by the turtles. Triclosin which is a chemical found in dishwashing liquids and antibacterial handwash has been discovered in dolphins at levels that can disrupt hormones, growth and development. Triclosin is stored in the fatty tissues of mammals. Even scarier is that Triclosin has also been detected in breast milk. Triclosin has also been causing trouble in municipal wastewater treatment plants by disrupting the microbes that are involved in the ‘sludge processing’.

Surfactants are the agents  that  give dishwashing liquid its wetting, dispersing and foaming ability. However the common surfactants found in traditionally used detergents can wreck havoc for aquatic life. According to Lennitech, a company specialising in water treatment, detergents are poisonous to all forms of aqautic life. The detergent “destroy the external mucus layers that protect the fish from bacteria and parasites; plus they can cause severe damage to the gills.” The other problem identified by Lennitech caused by surfactants in freshwater systems is that they reduce the surface tension of the water allowing other chemicals and pesticides present in the water to be more easily absorbed by fish.

Next week I will look at how washing the dishes effects us and our health. However I wanted to cover the environmental effects first because at the end of the day, we have a choice about what we expose ourselves to. The aquatic, marine and plant life do not. They rely on us to keep them healthy and safe. At the end of the day, one must at some stage stack the plates, fill the sink and wash the dishes. The reality is we simply cannot just stop cleaning. However, I ask you to rethink how you do the dishes and maybe you might consider trying an alternative, natural and more environmentally friendly option in the future.

Have you tried any natural dishwashing products? If so, i would love to hear what you have used and how it has worked for you. Just leave a comment below.