Resolving the Dishwasher vs. Hand Washing Dilemma Amid a COVID Lockdown

As we shelter in place, an empty sink is as elusive as happiness. But what's the best way to deal with the never-ending piles of dishes?

Dani Bar On
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Dishes in a dishwasher.
Dishes in a dishwasher.Credit: Bega / Shutterstock
Dani Bar On

As these lines are being written, it’s hard to know the situation in which they will find readers. Will the Shin Bet security service track us all down? Oh, that’s already happening. Will it still be permitted to publish newspapers? Will we still be able to leave out windows as they are, or will special regulations require us to blacken them at night, like in World War II? One thing that’s certain is that it will still be necessary to wash dishes. Sinks fill up even under dictatorships.

Among the many gifts the coronavirus has given me, I was granted the right to probe the various sub-categories of sink capacities. When we talk about the state of the kitchen sink, the discussion doesn’t usually transcend the level of its contents – full, half-full, quarter full and so on. But when you wash so many dishes, day after day, hour after hour, something in you rises beyond the everydayness of the task. And, in fact, a sink can fill up in a variety of forms, colors, odors and textures. The time has come to deconstruct all this.

There’s the phantom sink, for example. That’s when the sink only looks full but is actually bloated by a few dishes that are stacked in an inefficient manner. The opposite situation is the crammed sink. It creates an impression of emptiness – until you discover the mass grave of silverware in the bottom layer, spread out among the dregs of black coffee and soup croutons that have swelled like carcasses in the sun.

There are also fresh sinks that have only just filled up, so that they haven’t yet undergone the processes of solidification and fermentation. And there are mature sinks, in which the dishes resting on the bottom start to be covered with an ultra-thin layer of delectable mold, which manages to be simultaneously brown and transparent. The possibility also exists of an empty, clean sink, but that is as elusive as happiness.

The standard solution to the problem of dishes is a dishwasher, but I have always been suspicious of that appliance. And I am actually not alone in this. Data from the Central Bureau of Statistics show that only 42 percent of Israeli households have a dishwasher, closer to the number owning tablet devices (36 percent) than to those in possession of an air conditioner (93 percent). The Israeli public has long since been persuaded that a washing machine (which 96 percent of homes have) makes life easier – as anyone who has ever washed a towel by hand has learned.

But the dishwasher is sometimes met with a skeptical, even hostile attitude. Is there really any point to all the fuss and bother? To buy a machine, load it, insert all kinds of tablets, liquids, salts – and then break your back unloading it, only to discover that the dishes aren’t really clean enough? Apparently many people cling to their sponges and leave it at that.

Over the years, numerous figures have shown that dishwashers are more economical and more environmentally friendly than washing by hand. But the subject has never been examined in depth. An in-depth study means a life-cycle assessment. An LCA is a systematic calculation of all the environmental effects of the product in question. Research of that kind, in which use of the dishwasher was compared with washing by hand, was published for the first time in February.

Environmental scientists at the University of Michigan pretty much checked everything: from the carbon footprint left by the manufacturing process of the dishwasher, to the amount of dishwashing soap used when clean-up is done by hand. So obsessed were these researchers that they recruited dozens of volunteers and had them wash by hand and also load into dishwashers 79-piece sets of dishes and silverware, soiled with lipstick, tomato juice, spaghetti and other delicacies. Amid this, they meticulously controlled the speed of work, water temperature and other parameters.

The study was carried out at the initiative of the dishwasher maker Whirlpool, it’s true, but according to Noa Miron, an Israeli expert on LCA, the folks at U-M are serious and there’s no reason to question the credibility of their findings.

What they discovered was that the overall cost to the environment of manufacturing a dishwasher and getting rid of the machine at the end of its life are negligible, when compared to the cost of using it. Their primary finding was that the machine is preferable to washing dishes by hand, unless far-reaching economical measures are taken when dishes are washed by hand – namely, soaking them in a basin of soapy water and using a minimum amount of running water to rinse them. The problem is that most people who wash dishes by hand don’t behave like that. The average freestyle washing by hand, which uses the faucet moderately or heavily, consumes about four times more energy than a dishwasher of the new generation.

By the way, a dishwasher can also be used wastefully, if the “heavily soiled” program is chosen, followed by hot-air drying. But the most problematic behavior of all is that of the person who does the wrong thing for the wrong reason: He prewashes the dishes in the sink before putting them into the dishwasher and is certain that this is a sign of perfectionism. In fact, there’s no reason for doing that. Despite your intuition, despite what your grandmother taught you, and despite surveys showing that this is what most people do. Unlike the “need” some people feel to tidy up the house before the cleaning person arrives – rinsing off dishes before putting them into the dishwasher is superfluous and wasteful. According to the study, that extra step – instead of quickly wiping off dirty dishes with a cloth, without water – increases the cost to the environment of using a dishwasher by almost 20 percent.

The conclusion that the use of a dishwasher is preferable to washing dishes by hand became the headline of local media coverage of the American study (“Final answer to the familiar old dilemma”). But translating environmental research studies is trickier than translating poetry, because they’re very sensitive to the specific country in which they’re carried out. In terms of energy use, a very substantial component of environmental analysis, the difference between here and there is crucial. When dishes are washed by hand in cold Michigan, every liter of warm or hot water that passes through the faucet entails a high economic and environmental cost, because it is warmed by burning natural gas or coal. In Israel, however, the water in the faucets is generally heated with the help of the sun (83 percent of households here have a solar heater).

Dr. Miron did a few calculations and then called to say that according to her estimate, the opposite conclusion holds in Israel: Washing dishes by hand is preferable to using a dishwasher, at least in terms of hothouse gases emitted.

On the other hand, the conservation of water made possible by a dishwasher is of special importance in a desert country. The dishwashers in the study consumed about 12 liters of water, as compared with 26 to 82 liters in washing by hand. Then again, whereas in the United States there is no significant difference in monetary cost between the two methods, in Israel washing by hand is cheaper if we take into account the cost of the dishwasher itself, repairs, electricity and cleaning materials.

Then yet again, dishwashers are great time-savers. In the study, it took 10 minutes to load the dishwasher, while washing by hand took half an hour and more. That sounded like an exaggeration to me, but after calculating the amount of time it takes me to wash a sink full of dishes by hand, I found that a dishwasher would save me roughly five days a year.

To sum up: In the United States the dishwasher is victorious by all parameters, whereas in Israel the dishwasher saves time and water, while washing by hand saves electricity and money.

Because of the singular circumstances of the energy and water situation in Israel, it’s difficult to decide between the alternatives. So either choice is suitable, provided you try to economize in whichever option you prefer. My choice is clear: In a situation of a prolonged lockdown, with dishes piling up at the rhythm of a bossa nova, washing by hand, which was once a calming activity for me, has become an ongoing nightmare.

This pastime is too demanding. For some time I’ve had the feeling that a large dishwasher was about to enter my life. Farewell, dishes with aging dirt! Go in peace, golden moments of meditative washing at 6 in the morning. I’ll miss you all.

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