By Marcia Sielaff
Have you been wondering why your dishes and glasses don’t look as clean as they once did? Wonder no more. There’s an environmentalist in your dishwasher.
While you were preoccupied with showers, toilets and light bulbs, the environmentalists were having their way with your state legislature.
The January 31 issue of The Weekly Standard explains it all started in Washington State. The short version is that the Spokane River was polluted largely due to phosphorous run-off from a variety of major sources (industrial and water treatment facilities to mention a few) and from phosphorous in the form of phosphates in dishwasher detergents. The idea was launched to ban dishwasher detergents containing phosphates which is what the Washington legislature did in 2006.
Then the environmentalist lobby went to work getting similar laws passed in other states, although no one knows for sure how much dishwasher detergent really contributed to the pollution problem. When phosphorous gets into fresh water it stimulates algae growth. When the algae die, oxygen needed by plants and fish is depleted.
Although not all states banned the sale of detergents containing phosphates for home dishwashers, enough did so that manufacturers quietly altered their detergent formulas. It just wasn’t feasible to make detergents with phosphates for some states but not others. Householders, unaware that detergents no longer contained phosphates to help soften water, prevent particles from adhering to dishes, or give dishes that sparkle extolled in commercials, assumed their dishwashers were to blame.
Even National Public Radio reported irate home owners’ complaints that, “…pots and pans were gray, … aluminum was starting to turn black, … glasses had fingerprints and lip prints … and they were starting to get this powdery look to them.”
As is the case with light bulbs that require a hazmat team for safe disposal, this green dream also turned out to have unintended environmental consequences. As the Standard explains, “It was the phosphorus in detergents, after all, that allowed modern dishwashers to function well using smaller amounts of cooler water.”
If more people revert to hand washing dishes to get them clean, more water and more fossil fuel to heat it will be required. Some people put vinegar in an extra rinse, or run their dishwashers twice, using more water and electricity. So, you may ask, exactly what environmental gains have been achieved by the bans.
Well, you can ask, just don’t expect an answer. It turns out that the science behind banning dish detergent is a bit iffy. The Standard points to a 2003 Minnesota study showing only 1.9 percent of the phosphorous there was due to household dish detergents.
However, as Sean Hannity likes to say, “Let not your heart be troubled.” Paper plates and plastic glasses are (still) an option…as are landfills to put them in. Or, since restaurants are excluded from the ban, some people suggest buying dish detergent from restaurant supply houses. But lest the phosphate police come knocking, you didn’t read it here.
Marcia Sielaff writes for What Would the Founders Think.com.