The Environmental Impact of Dishwashing Detergent: All You Need to Know

Not many of the activities and tasks we perform on a day to day basis have zero effect on the environment. In fact, even a task as simple as washing dishes comes with some negative eco effects. The proposed federal legislation to ban any commercial dishwasher detergent containing phosphates is meant to help the environment, but the truth is that not all eco-friendly products are great at cleaning dishes.

If you’ve ever tried washing your dishes with detergents without phosphates, you probably noticed they do clean but they also boost algae growth in freshwater. That’s a whole other set of problems, what with algae overgrowth threatening fish and other aquatic plants. So what is the best solution?

Simply walking down the cleaner aisle at the store will offer you an incredible offer of dish detergents. The first thing you will notice is the pungent smell of artificial fragrance; the second thing is the dazzling amount of brands to choose from. Just a glance at the ingredient list will have you running, so you might want to turn to a more natural dishwasher detergent.

Is an Eco Dishwashing Detergent Really Necessary?

In short, the answer is yes. But don’t just take our word for it. Below are some of the reasons why you should switch immediately from a commercial dish detergent to a natural one.

  1. Most mainstream brands still contain chlorine bleach. Over time, this strong chemical can cause some serious respiratory troubles. Chlorine fumes are often released into the air during the drying cycle of the dishwasher. With so many safer alternatives out there, there’s just no good reason to expose your children to toxic indoor air.
  2. Synthetic fragrances are not just very common, but they also contain phthalates more often than not. Around 3,000 chemicals can legally be called “fragrance,” so don’t be fooled by an “eco” claim. Whenever you see fragrance listed, you can be sure the “natural” claims aren’t what they seem.
  3. Regular detergents also add sulfuric acid. Not only is it highly corrosive, but it can also cause burns and trigger asthma. This is yet another reason to skip the trip to the local store and make your own DIY detergent.

As you can see, using dishwashers can cause plenty of indoor air pollution. If we’re not careful enough – with the health of our family and the well-being of the environment – we often end up inhaling chemical vapors during the wash cycle.

Truly Natural Dishwasher Detergents

  • Are biodegradable – In other words, the product contains only natural, plant-based ingredients that will easily break down/dissolve without harming the environment.
  • Contain no artificial fragrance – The non-toxic dish detergent will either be unscented or scented with essential oils.
  • List their ingredients – You can always trust an ingredient list which offers full disclosure. If the ingredients of a dish detergent are not listed, then it’s probably better to not buy it. Keep in mind that cleaning product companies are not required by law to list all of their ingredients.

Dish Detergent – Environmental Impact

One of the biggest problems with commercial dishwashing detergents is that they contain phosphate. Even though it’s a naturally occurring substance, too much phosphate that gets into waterways will cause algal bloom. Phytoplankton and algae love to feed on it, which causes a massive reproduction.

Blue-green algae created one of the most dangerous blooms called cyanobacteria. If you would ingest large amounts, this bloom can make you severely sick and even kill you. Algal blooms are also terrible for the aquatic life; they block out sunlight and cause oxygen imbalances in the water. As a result, this can kill off other species.

While a phosphate free detergent is the ideal solution, it may be impractical in some locations and whether you wash by hand or use a dishwasher. This being the case, we encourage you to compare detergents for phosphate levels. A low phosphate level (around 1.6%) is much safer, but you also need to evaluate how much detergent you need to use.

DIY Dish Formulas

Hearing about the many downsides of commercial dishwater detergent leads us to the topic of making your own fish-friendly, non-toxic dishwater detergent. A DIY dishwashing detergent helps you save money on store-bought detergents as well as save the environment. However, it’s not as easy as it sounds. Cleaning with vinegar and baking soda has its limits and dishes do require some extra magic.

Given that many DIY homemakers are reluctant to rely on Borax for their dish formulas, here is a Borax-free formula that you could try. It uses baking soda, citric acid, coarse salt, and citrus essential oil (orange, grapefruit, or lemon).

Here’s another formula you can try, if you’re not against using Borax:

  • Add one tablespoon of baking soda and one tablespoon of borax to the dishwasher. Continue washing the dishes as you would with a regular dishwashing detergent.
  • To get rid of the water spots, skip the clear rinse gel and pour a generous amount of distilled white vinegar instead.

Baking soda and distilled white vinegar are favorites with eco-friendly homeowners as they are known for their natural cleaning properties.

Tips for Sparkling Dishes

Natural detergents are better at cleaning if you scrape off heavy leftovers before loading the dishes in the dishwasher. Not only will this practice save you energy and water, but it will also allow you to skip the pre-rinse cycle. Then take these steps:

• Place large dishes at the sides and back of the machine so they don’t block the water stream and detergent.

• Load the dishes with the dirtier side toward the center of the machine.

• Don’t let utensils or dishes nest.

• Use the prongs to rest glasses upside down; that way, they won’t fill with water.

• When washing dishes by hand, make the most of your bottle of detergent. When it seems empty, use it for a couple of washes more by adding a bit of warm water to the bottle and then shake.

What kind of dishwasher detergent do you use? Do you make your own DIY detergent? Tell us about your eco-friendly practices in the comment section below.

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William E. Eubanks

I'm one of the main writers on the site; mostly dealing with environmental news and ways to live green. My goal is to educate others about this great planet, and the ways we can help to protect it.

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