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Mona Charen
Mona Charen
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Environmentalists: Hands Off My Dishes!


I began noticing the white coating, dull film, and simply unclean dishes a few weeks ago. Naturally, I suspected that other members of my clan were failing to place dishes on the racks of the dishwasher properly. "If the water can't reach it, it won't get clean," I lectured (not, ahem, for the first time), ostentatiously removing a small bowl that had been slipped under a larger one, no doubt by a person who clings to the discredited idea that dishwashers should be loaded to the gills. And those little separators in the utensil caddy — they are there for a reason, gentlemen!

But the crisis persisted. And, as the days passed, it became clear that the matter was beyond poor placement. Bits of spaghetti, stiff and stubborn, stuck like stalactites to bowls. The walls and doors of the machine emerged waxy and coated from each wash, in contrast to the gleaming surfaces of the past. Between the tines of forks, ugly bits of hardened remains resembled something you'd see on "NCIS" — if not quite repellent, then certainly unwelcome from what should have been a disinfected, pristine dishwasher!

I switched brands of dishwashing liquid. No change. Topped off the rinse aid reservoir. No change. I'd be lying if I didn't admit that the thought of buying a new machine flitted through my consciousness. Sparkling, squeaky-clean dishes are a necessary part of our quality of life! But our dishwasher is only three years old.

And then I learned that I don't have a personal problem. I have a political problem. Jonathan V. Last of The Weekly Standard explains that, all across the nation, innocent Americans are grappling with the identical scourge. Our dishwashers are fine. The reason our dishes are dirty is that the environmentalists have succeeded in banning phosphates from dishwashing soap.

Until recently, dishwashing soap contained about 8 percent elemental phosphorus. That's the magic element that "strips food and grease off dirty dishes and breaks down calcium-based stains." It also prevents food from reattaching to the dishes.

Or used to. As of July 2010, the nation's detergent manufacturers, bowing to laws regulating phosphorus in 17 states, reconfigured the formula for all dishwashing soap to contain less than 0.5 percent phosphorus.

It's taken till now for most of us to notice, as we used up the old (the wonderful old) soap and unwittingly made the switch.

Environmentalists argue that phosphorus winds up in our lakes and streams, causing algae blooms, which in turn reduce the oxygen available for other life. They admit that the amount of phosphorus coming from dishwasher soap is small, but, according to Jani Gilbert, a spokeswoman for the Department of Ecology in Washington State, "Anything we can do is good."

Well, hang on. According to a 2003 Minnesota study, only 1.9 percent of the phosphorus in that state came from dishwashing detergent. And even The New York Times acknowledges that fertilizer and manure are the big culprits, with dishwashing soap contributing only "a fraction" of phosphates in the water.

Besides, removing phosphorus has other environmental consequences. People may run their dishwashers twice (guilty), causing more greenhouse gases to be created, or they may hand-wash their dishes using more hot water than machines do (there are studies that show that hand-washers tend to run the hot water too long — really).

This stealth attack on our dishes happened with little public debate. If there really is a serious problem with phosphates in our rivers and streams (and from my quick inquiries, it seems to vary considerably around the nation), then voters should be offered alternatives. We can reduce our use of lawn fertilizers, for example. I'd prefer a yellow lawn to grimy dishes if it came to that.

But I need to be convinced. Remember those compact fluorescent light bulbs that were supposed to save billions of kilowatts of energy? California was an early adopter and is spending $548 million over seven years to subsidize the sale of the bulbs (the rest of us will see incandescent bulbs disappear from shelves by 2014). But now it seems the CFL bulbs don't last 9.4 years — more like 6.3. They don't work well when they're cold. They're very expensive. They cast a garish light. And if they break, you have to don a Hazmat suit to dispose of them. Meanwhile, LED lights are coming on fast, making the whole CFL thing seem as fresh as pet rocks.

In other words, environmentalists may not know what they're talking about. In any case, something as intimate and critical as the cleanliness of our dishes ought not to be decided through stealth or back-room deals. Arise! A cascade of complaints — to the companies and to governments — is our best hope.

To find out more about Mona Charen and read features by other Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at



13 Comments | Post Comment
Stupid, stupid law! Phosphate compound residues are easily removed by municipal sewage treatment plants before entering whatever effluent stream they might have, so---no environmental problem. If you have a septic tank and drain field the phosphorous goes no further than your drain field and does not enter any lakes or streams, so----no environmental problem. The real problem is, in fact, lawn and farm fertilizers. Most lawn fertilizers all come with a phosphorous component when, in fact, most mature lawns do not need it. The environmentalists and politicians find it a lot easier to fight the detergent companies than the farm lobby so the biggest culprit, farm fertilizers, goes unscathed.
When Michigan banned Phophates in laundry detergent some 30-odd years ago, the manufacturers could only replace it with a compound that raised the Ph of the detergent almost to the level of lye. Well, inevitably, a small child swallowed some of it and it ate the lining of his esophagus out and he choked to death on it. (this would not have happened with the old formula) I wrote to some of the Michigan legislators who voted to ban the phosphates saying basically "see what you did". And they wrote back and said, basically "gee, nobody told us this would happen". These are stupid laws, period!
Comment: #1
Posted by: grundoon
Mon Jan 24, 2011 11:55 PM
I just got a new dishwasher and thought the poor cleaning quality was because I didn't buy the top model. I've had the repair guy out twice on this same issue and another friend had her repair guy tell her (after 20 years on her own) she (all of a sudden) just didn't know how to load the washer. We were cursing the brand but this explains it!
Comment: #2
Posted by: Sarah Smith
Tue Jan 25, 2011 1:25 AM
Here's a headline: "LAZY AZZES: Rinse Your Dishes!" You're trying to use chemicals to do what would take you an extra five seconds. It's disgusting -- you have such a sense of entitlement, yet no comprehension that with our human position of King of the World comes the responsibility of stewardship. That means you don't get to poison lakes because you are too lazy to rinse the crud off your dishes. You don't need more chemicals to wash your dishes, but you do need to cut the amount of detergent you're using in HALF - that's where the white film is coming from. Save money and save the lakes. Act like you appreciate the world God gave you. Quit b1tchin'.
Comment: #3
Posted by: Honor Girl
Tue Jan 25, 2011 4:50 AM
Hey! Here's an idea - why not just dump a little toilet cleaner in there? It does a bang up job of "melting food particles."

FYI, phosphates have been missing from laundry detergent for decades. Our lakes are better off for it and our clothes still get clean. If you would take five seconds and rinse your dishes when you're through eating -- instead of expecting chemicals to dissolve everything for you -- they will come out just fine.
Comment: #4
Posted by: Honor Girl
Tue Jan 25, 2011 5:16 AM
Uh, "Honor Girl", did you read the article? Pre-rinsing would not fix the filmy residue from the soap itself that the author is complaining about.

Try going to a local college and take a course on reading comprehension, would you?
Comment: #5
Posted by: Tom Anderson
Tue Jan 25, 2011 9:12 AM
And I thought it was my new cheap dishwasher . . . . Thanks for sharing.
Comment: #6
Posted by: One Way
Tue Jan 25, 2011 9:45 AM
Re: Honor Girl
I have news for you. I always rinse my dishes before I put them in the dishwasher. I have tried reducing the amount of dish detergent, buying a new dishwasher and switching brands. Nothing work. the scum left on the glasses, dishes and utensils could only be removed with vinegar. Stop insulting people when you do not know what you are talking about
Comment: #7
Posted by: MOM
Tue Jan 25, 2011 10:52 AM
THANK YOU! THANK YOU! THANK YOU! for your wonderful article. People need to know about dishwasher soap and how much power the environmentalists have (which they shouldn't). They don't know what they are talking about (the spotted owls are thriving in clear-cut forests in the west). I care deeply about the environment, but I want science and common sense behind my beliefs.
Please look into the stupid engineering in new clothes washing machines. Hang onto your old ones. Do you know you can't wash with hot water? The "hot" setting is actually "warm". I bought a front loading machine with a water-conserving feature. Some of the clothes weren't even wet ( I did not overload it). I noticed skin problems. You need HOT water to get rid of bacteria. I wonder if that's the problem with the infestation of bed bugs. I won't be surprised to see more and other infestations, and also skin problems.
About the new lightbulbs - the ones on cars are blinding, and should be illegal; the ones for the home cause migraines.
Keep up the good work. You certainly know what you're talking about.
Comment: #8
Posted by: cs
Thu Jan 27, 2011 10:07 AM
When I was having problems and got a new dishwasher, the installation man went over a few important things. FIRST he said: RUN THE SINK HOT WATER NEXT TO THE DISHWASHER UNTIL IT IS AT THE HOTEST. Turn off the sink faucet and start the dishwasher immediately! (And DON'T run the sink water until the DW has finished filling and the action is started.) SECOND: He emphasized that too much DW powder makes for cloudy dishes. Use half as much as the box says. That worked!! There is a tendency to think more is better. It is not!
Now for something I have discovered that makes the dishes really clean and shine: "Cascade ActionPacs" They are pre-measured with two ingredients in each little packet, and it's the right amount for any load. Fantastic idea! But be careful about reaching in the bag and touching them with wet hands, as they warn. I put the entire bag in another zip plastic bag so they won't get damp under the sink next to anything else.
Comment: #9
Posted by: Marmee
Thu Jan 27, 2011 11:52 AM
Re: cs
To get hotter water into your washer: Adjust the incoming faucets back of the washer to have more hot and less cold, like you do your bathtub. When they install the washer, the just turn the knobs to the same amount of output, when actually we need more hot in the mix. Hope that works for you!
Another thing I discovered: Those dryer sheets that fluff stuff tend to "water-proof" tea towels and bath towels and make the harder to absorb. Also, I discovered the dryer sheets make my skin itch if they are used on pillowcases and sheets. A few wrinkles in stuff is better than itching! Hope that is helpful.
Comment: #10
Posted by: Marmee
Thu Jan 27, 2011 12:06 PM
Re: cs
As with everything... "Liberalism generates the exact opposite of its stated intent." Throw the DW soap out with the crummy curly bulbs. I hate them too. Environmentalists won't be happy till we are reading by candlelight and beating our clothes on a rock down at the river.
I recycle, I compost and I consider myself a steward of the environment. That doesn't mean you have to live in the Dark Ages.
Comment: #11
Posted by: #1 Gram
Thu Jan 27, 2011 5:03 PM
A long while ago, I discovered the same problem - I tried all brands - didn't work. My "old" appliance repair man with a lot of "smarts" told me to put a coffee mug filled with white vinegar in the corner of my dishwasher and run regular way. It works. I do it all the time and have for a long while. White vinegar & water (diluted one half & one half) is all I use for cleaning stove tops, windows, etc.Cheap & it works much better - just leave you window open for the smell, but it's worth it.
Comment: #12
Posted by: faith
Fri Jan 28, 2011 10:03 AM
A long while ago, I discovered the same problem - I tried all brands - didn't work. My "old" appliance repair man with a lot of "smarts" told me to put a coffee mug filled with white vinegar in the corner of my dishwasher and run regular way. It works. I do it all the time and have for a long while. White vinegar & water (diluted one half & one half) is all I use for cleaning stove tops, windows, etc.Cheap & it works much better - just leave you window open for the smell, but it's worth it.
Comment: #13
Posted by: faith
Fri Jan 28, 2011 10:03 AM
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