Tuesday, February 1, 2011

#26 The Case of the Dirty Dishes

I reached for a clean glass to hold my freshly pureed green sludge and there it was. Trailing along the lip were the unmistakable remnants of yesterday’s drink.

“EEEEow,” I squeaked.

“Stinkbug?” my husband called out from the other room.

Like many households in our area we had a mild stinkbug infestation. Occasionally one would fall on our heads from the ceiling or show up unexpectedly looking gross. Hilarity or screaming would ensue depending on the situation.

“No,” I called back. “Just dirty dishes. I think something is wrong with the dishwasher.”

He agreed that he was seeing too much of yesterday’s food on the silverware and suggested calling Mr. Kenny. Mr. Kenny is our personal version of the Maytag repairman that was a TV icon about a decade ago. He is pleasant, efficient and reliable. We love him.

The next day the dishwasher was dismantled with various parts strewn on the kitchen floor. Mr. Kenny looked up and commented conversationally, “that’s what I thought.” There on the floor of the machine was either a million dollars worth of cocaine or all the soap crystals I had poured into the noisy contraption over the last 6 weeks. Mr. Kenny was going with the soap crystal theory.

“A few weeks ago new Maryland EPA regulations regarding the composition of dishwasher detergent took effect, “ he explained.

I stared at him blankly.

“The manufacturers are not allowed to use phosphates any more and that is the chemical that allows the soap to dissolve and get your dishes clean,” he clarified.
It is also the chemical, I thought to myself, responsible for the death of untold numbers of innocent fish.

High levels of phosphates from domestic and municipal wastewater end up in local streams, lakes and rivers. Phosphorus is a growth enhancing nutrient for plants. A little is good but too much and you are looking at Little Shop of Horrors, the water version. As the phosphorus levels go up and up, the algae grow to cancerous proportions literally sucking the streams and rivers dry. Some regulators have recognized the utter destruction of lakes as a bad thing and sixteen states, apparently including Maryland where I live, have enacted laws restricting or removing phosphates from dish washing detergent.

Mr. Kenny informed me that the dishwasher manufactures recommended Cascade Complete with the addition of a water softening product called Lemi Fresh. He admitted the soap manufacturers had not perfected the new formulations yet and they did not work very well. I hate it when choices are reduced down to clean dishes or destroying the environment. As the dishes were getting increasingly dirtier, I had tried Cascade among several other products and was unimpressed. Now I was feeling guilty for inadvertently contributing to massive fish kill all these years when I was not paying attention to which dish washing detergent I was using.

I try to be as ecological conscious as possible by buying organically raised food in part to reduce pesticide run off that also ruins waterways. Except for dish washing detergent, most of the cleaning products in my house are practically edible. For laundry, I stopped using detergent altogether and bought Super Washer Balls (www.superwashball.com). They are plastic balls filled with ionically charged beads that clean your clothes without soap. I have no idea why messing with ionic particles gets clothes clean but my friend, Bill highly recommended them. I even wash and reuse plastic bags, much to the horror of my husband and children. Yet I never thought twice about the dishwasher. It was a dishwashing detergent blind spot.

I wondered if my clever virtual assistant, Tania, was having similar problems.

“Nope,” she insisted. “I don’t like my dishwasher so the last time I bought detergent was 1996. It was full of phosphates then, so I am good. Do you want me to send it to you?” Some people are ordering dishwashing detergent from non-phosphate restricting states to get around the dirty dish situation.

“And destroy rivers!” I countered. “Absolutely, not. I just have to figure out what will work that is environmentally friendly.” Treehugger.com claimed 7th Generation detergent worked best while another site suggested adding a cup of vinegar to the wash cycle. I cannot figure out how or where to add vinegar so it doesn’t just rinse down the drain. There is not a “Vinegar” dispenser on my model. Besides that could get expensive. Seventh Generation has only ever made phosphate free detergent and so that is what I am using now.

“It is even cheaper and more environmentally friendly if you just wash your dishes by hand, like me,” Tania observed smugly. As much as I hate to admit it, she might have a point though I might end up using more water than my dishwasher. I can’t help but think of Kermit the Frog when he lamented, “It is hard to be green”.

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