Thursday, April 2, 2009

Airing my dirty dishes in public

In recent years, I have made great strides in being more environmentally conscious. I recycle, I bring reusable bags to the grocery store, I use compact fluorescent light bulbs, I support local farmers by participating in a CSA, I made the switch to environmentally friendlier laundry detergent, and I have a high-efficiency washer. I am successful in this due in large part to Mr. F. who is a crunchy hippie who poses as a right-wing conservative so as not to get beat up at work.

However, I learned the other day of an area where in I have been remiss in my environmental stewardship: dishwasher detergents. For some reason, dishwasher detergents weren't on my radar as hazardous material. Perhaps, it is because, I thought phosphates were banned in dishwasher detergents like they were in laundry detergents. However, this is not the case. I learned of my oversight when I read a status update for a friend of mine which complained of wanting stronger dish detergent since the stuff currently available in Spokane, where phosphate dish detergents are currently banned, is not as effective.

Oi vey! To think that I had been willy nilly dumping phosphates down the drain without thinking about it! And I knowing the direct consequences of that action! Afterall, my masters thesis was all about hypoxia (e.g. low dissolved oyxgen in the water) as a result of eutrophication (e.g. excess nutrients in the water) and its affects on fish.

In case you don't understand what the fuss is all about, I will give you the eutrophication low-down.

1. So the water from your house, loaded with lots of phosphates and other gunk, gets transported in some fashion to the waste water treatment facillity where it is supposedly "cleaned up" and then dumped back into the environment. In most instances, it is dumped directly into a large body of water. While treatment facilities do a fairly decent job getting rid of excess nitrogen in our water, they don't get rid of the phosphate really well. This is because the treatment facilities are CHEAP and LAZY. The current method for removing phosphate is kind of expensive, and it results in some sludge that has to be dealt with. Plus, they are too lazy to figure out and to switch to a better way, although new methods are out there. The result? There is a lot of phophorus that makes it to the water.

2. Phosphorus is like crack to algae, and as a result, algae go crazy when they get some. This is why you get large blooms of green stuff in your bays, rivers, and lakes as a result of your dirty wastewater. This is o.k. for a bit because lots of algae means a lot of oxygen is being produced, and there is a lot of food for organisms to eat.
3. However, algae have the life-time of, like, a nanosecond. So after a short time, this massive amount of dead plant material drops to the bottom of the water column.
4. This makes the microbial benthic communities (e.g. the microscopic bugs that break-up dead matter) really, really happy, and they go to town. As a result of this huge meal at their fingertips, their population explodes. The problem? It requires a lot of oxygen to break-up this dead stuff, more oxygen than was produced by the algae in the first place. The result--an oxygen deficit in the water. This is known as hypoxia.

5. So, what does low dissolved oxygen in the water mean? Well, what do you think would happen if there was not enough oxygen in the air? WE WOULD DIE. And that is what happens to nearly all living organisms that are in the water.

So, I think this is a good reason not to use dish detergents with phosphorus in them. However, like my friend complained, some of the eco-friendly detergents out there aren't as good. One article stated however, that it was the enzymes rather than the phosphates that made the difference. The enzymes are also more effective in the powedered detergents than the liquid ones. So, that might be something to consider.

However another inexpensive alternative is to make your detergent at home. Besides being eco-friendly, it is also less expensive. Whoop! Here is the recipe that I have been using since finding out My Big Mistake.

Dish Detergent

1 1/2 C mule team borax
1 1 /2 C baking soda
1 C table salt.

I find it works quite well. The key is also not to over-pack your dishwasher, especially the top shelf. Also, you might just have to rinse your dishes a bit better before sticking them into the dishwasher.

Any other suggestions or thoughts on the matter?


Retail Worker #48721093 said...

Drive to Coeur D'Alene and smuggle your phosphates over the boarder? I know a lot of people that do this because they hate the phosphate free stuff.

BTW...not advocating this.

And as for "cheap" wastewater treatment plants...most of the money that is collected for improvements comes from the citizens. They have to vote for the bonds/taxes to pay for upgrades (though there is usually some state/federal support). Unfortunately most people don't care. So it isn't the wastewater management teams that are pulling back on upgrades...its the citizens not wanting to spend the money. Our infrastructure in this country is complete crap because people don't understand how much money it costs. Check out Brightwater (new wastewater facility) in King/Snohomish county. Close to/maybe over a billion dollars to build.

*steps off soap box*

Now you should check out greywater systems and composting toilets. You could be so environmental that you don't put anything into the sewage system. Just recycle your bathwater into your flowerbeds and lawn.

Katie said...

Wait a minute! Do you live in Spokane!

That's where my parents are?!?!? SO COOL!

Lady Susan said...

RW--Yeah, I know that a large part of the problem is the general populace not wanting to pay the extra money required for the upgrade/increased filtering capabilities etc. However, I also think that if people really put their minds to it, they could come up with a decent solution--perhaps a compromise in cost? I don't know.

And yeah, infrastructure is freakin' expensive.

I also know that I could be doing a lot more, especially with the gray water,etc. steps, baby steps. ;)

Katie, I actually don't live in Spokane. However, I grew up in Eastern Washington, and a lot of my friends and family still live there. I am just biding my time until I can move back west. We shall see.

Retail Worker #48721093 said...

Sorry to get all ranty. :D

They are trying to get a new treatment facility going here and the general public doesn't seem to want it. But they like to complain about how much the system we have now sucks. Cognitive dissonance much?

Spokanites hate to support their public works. It's more fun to complain about the potholes and snow removal.

Misty said...

Isn't that the recipe my mom posted? And it's working well?

Jaimee said...

Cool! We haven't tried this yet or making our own laundry detergent. Perhaps soon! In the meantime, my favorite environmentally safe dish washer cleaner is Ecover (tabs).


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