Is It Better to Use the Dishwasher or Hand-Wash Your Dishes?

Here’s what's better for the planet, your dishes, and your wallet.

Photo: Chris Collins/Getty Images

Why does the dishwasher vs. hand-washing debate continue to rage on? Because there's more to the puzzle than just convenience versus efficiency.

The Wrong Way to Wash Dishes

We'll start with this: There is most definitely a wrong way to wash dishes, and chances are, you're guilty of it. "Generally, people are not efficient dish-washers," says green architect Colin Cathcart, of Kiss + Cathcart Architects and Fordham University, where he's an associate professor of architecture. "When you let the hot water run and pass the dishes underneath so that it goes down the drain, that's certainly the wrong way."

Pitted against that kind of water-wasting hand washing, your dishwasher will always be the more environmentally-friendly option. Whether you have a built-in or countertop dishwasher, you also can't beat the convenience factor. Who doesn't want to just load up their dirty dishes and glassware, pop a dishwasher pod in the machine and close the door?

"The whole formula goes out the window if you rinse dishes first, then put them in the dishwasher, then have to put them through again," says Cathcart, who points out that dairy, eggs, and oils are notoriously tough to wash away in the dishwasher. (We'll add avocado to that list.) Still, many of the best dishwashers on the market virtually eliminated the need to pre-rinse. There are also plenty of dishwasher detergents that can reduce these types of occurences significantly.

Of course, if you're an obsessive pre-rinser, or if that frittata casserole dish comes out of the dishwasher still crusted with baked-on eggs and cheese, the efficiency level of machine-washing can plummet.

By hand-washing your dishes the correct way, says Cathcart, you might come out slightly ahead of the energy-expenditure game—if only because you're using human energy to dry the dishes rather than the heat cycle on your dishwasher.

The Best Way to Wash Dishes

The how-to for the greenest-possible hand-washing: Fill half of a split sink with hot water ("as hot as your hands can stand") and a small amount of low-polluting dish soap; fill the other side of the sink with clean hot water. Scrub dishes on the soapy side, then rinse them on the clean side. Dry with dish towels, not paper towels (remember: the goal is green), or let air dry on the counter, or on a dish drying rack—though make sure you are sanitizing the rack daily, if possible, or at least 1–2 times per week to avoid the build-up of germs.

By using this hand-washing technique, you're likely using the same amount of water as a typical Energy Star dishwasher does, around 4 gallons, says Cathcart. "The differences we're talking about are pretty marginal."

That said, Cathcart offers one reason for picking up a sponge once in a while. "I like doing dishes manually," he says. "I learned how to wash dishes from my grandmother, and it's a basic ritual that carries through in a family. I taught my kids how to do dishes by hand. They complained mightily while doing it, but they remember those moments today."

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