stack of recently washed dishes drying on a towel

The Environmental Impact of Washing Dishes

Week 32

So far in my Tiny Waste Resolution, I've found learned about the environmental impact and found sustainable alternatives for laundry detergent, bathroom cleaners, multi-purpose spray. Now, it's time to focus on one last bit of cleaning in my home... dish washing.

How does my dish washing routine impact the environment?

Water Waste

A few weeks ago, I looked into the the importance of water conservation and learned that the average American family uses 300 gallons of water every day at home, and roughly 70% of that usage occurs indoors. Toilets, showers, washing machines, and running faucets are the biggest culprits. When hand washing our dishes, we blow through about 9-27 gallons of water, while a dishwasher uses 6-16 gallons of water per wash cycle.

Dish Soap

Conventional dish soap contains all sorts of chemical ingredients, many of which are toxic to humans, pets, and aquatic life. The breakdown of these ingredients is too extensive to cover in this post, so please read this article by Tree Hugger for further explanation.

In addition, soap bottles, like all plastics, are made from crude oil, a non-renewable resource, which is harmful for two reasons: manufacturing generates significant pollution and the product is not biodegradable. As put it, "they are difficult to produce and nearly impossible to get rid of once produced". Instead of biodegrading, plastic breaks down into tiny micro-plastics that litter our soil, our waterways, and even our air.


First of all, most kitchen sponges are made from synthetic materials, aka, plastic. In addition, they hold loads of bacteria. According to a study published in Scientific Reports researchers "found 362 different species of bacteria, and locally, the density of bacteria reached up to 45 billion per square centimeter."

Are dishwashers better or worse than hand washing?

Dishwashers, even older models, are more efficient than hand washing as they use less energy, water, and soap.

Are dish soap bottles and dishwasher powder boxes recyclable?

Most dish soap bottles are curbside recyclable, but you should be 100% sure to avoid wishful recycling. The small recycling symbol does not mean it is recyclable, it only indicates the type of material being used. With that number, you can check your local requirements to see if it is accepted by curbside pickup.

Dishwasher powder boxes, however, are not recyclable. They are coated with plastic that is difficult to separate in recycling facilities.

How can I be more sustainable?

For starters, you can switch to a sustainable dish soap that cuts back on waste and uses environmentally-friendly ingredients.

Second, when it's time to replace your sponges and pot-scrubbers, opt for plastic-free alternatives. Package Free Shop carries compostable Wooden Dish Washing Brushes as well as recyclable Copper Pot Scrubbers. You can also Make a Pot Scrubbers with some leftover yarn.

Finally, water conservation is extremely important for the future of our planet. So, here are a few ways to cut back on usage while doing the dishes:

Don't rinse dishes before loading them into the dishwasher

Loading dishes directly into the dishwasher can save 20 gallons of water per load.

Turn off the faucet while scrubbing dishes

Letting your faucet run for five minutes while washing dishes can waste 10 gallons of water.

Only run the dishwasher when it is full

Running these appliances only when they are full can save hundreds of gallons every month.

Use water-efficient appliances

We can use 20 percent less water by installing water-efficient fixtures and appliances. As an added bonus, the average family can save more than $380 annually from retrofitting with WaterSense labeled fixtures and ENERGY STAR certified appliances.

10 Sustainable Dish Soap Options →