Q. I assume that hand washing the dinner plates is more environmentally friendly than using the dishwasher, but just wanted to check. Is that right? – Lynn, FL 

A. Crazy as it may seem, the dishwasher’s actually the way to go. Unless you have superpowers that allow you to scrub fifteen entire place settings with less than three gallons of water (that’s about what the most efficient models on the market today use per load), or are still hanging onto your dear old (inefficient) 1990 model machine, a dishwasher is almost certainly your better option. A modern, efficient one will use surprisingly little energy (only about one or two kilowatt hours per load), and only about a sixth the amount of water you’d probably have used to scrub by hand. But if I did the dishes by hand, you’re thinking to your treehugging self, I’d use no energy at all, except man power. Wrong. Heating water takes energy, whether it flows into your sink or into the dishwasher. A machine will actually cut back on energy use by about half. 

Don’t believe us? Take it from a green celeb. Ed Begley said point blank in a recent episode of his new Planet Green show, Living with Ed, that the dishwasher is a better option “no matter how you slice it.”

Don’t believe Ed? How about a bunch of German researchers at the University of Bonn? They’ve done extensive work on the topic, conducting studies with titles like “Global Manual Dishwashing Habits,” and concluded that the dinner dishes are just one of those things in life that machines do better. 

As you load up the old machine, don’t forget that you’ll get the most bang for your buck if you fill it to capacity. And try to break your habit of pre-rinsing by hand, too. According to the Green Guide, pre-rinsing by hand can add an average of 20 extra gallons to each load. Instead, do the scrape and slosh: scrape food scraps into your compost bin (we know you keep one of these), and slosh the dish in a shallow pan filled with just one inch of water. But really, you can let go of your obsessive pre-rinsing all together. How are you and your dishwasher ever going to develop a healthy relationship if you can’t even trust it to take care of things on its own?

Lastly, to save even more energy, go with the “air dry” setting, or opt out of the dry cycle all together, and dry items by hand.

Story by Tobin Hack. This article originally appeared in Plenty in July 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008