Dear EarthTalk: What’s up with dishwasher detergents of late? They’re clearly not working as well. I hope whatever was done is helping the environment because it’s not helping my dishes.
— Sally P., Everett, Wash.
What happened was that in July 2010 a significant reduction in the amount of phosphates allowed in automatic dishwasher detergent went into effect in Washington State. Similar regulations were implemented in 14 other states (Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin) for 2009 before Oregon and Washington added their names to the list earlier this year. Previously phosphates could constitute up to 8.7 percent of dishwasher detergent; now the new regulations limit them to 0.5 percent.
The main problem with phosphates, which also come from agricultural and landscaping activities, is that they get into natural water bodies and act as fertilizer, accelerating plant and algae growth. When the plants and algae die, a feeding frenzy of bacteria consume all the oxygen dissolved in the water, creating an environment inhospitable to fish and other aquatic life. These oxygen-devoid “dead zones” can occur in freshwater or in the ocean. In fact, two of the world’s largest dead zones are in the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, the result of fertilizers running off of farmland. Besides phosphates’ negative effect on water bodies, their presence in the environment can also be harmful to terrestrial wildlife and can trigger skin and eye irritation and allergies, among other ill effects, in humans.
Environmentalists and others supportive of the reduction in phosphates claim that the new regulations will spare wastewater treatment systems from dealing with 10-12 percent of the phosphates previously encountered. Wastewater treatment managers in Spokane, Washington, for example, found that a local year-old ban on phosphates in dishwashing detergent there saved them from dealing with upwards of 180 pounds of phosphates — or about 10 percent of the total load — each and every day at municipal wastewater treatment facilities — saving not only money but also the other chemicals used to treat the water.
Given the shift in so many states, many manufacturers have reformulated their entire product lines for markets across the country, so even if you don’t live in one of the affected states you might be getting dishwashing detergent with a lot less phosphorous as well. Consumer Reports tested 24 of the leading low-phosphate dishwasher detergents to see which ones got dishes cleanest. The top finishers were Cascade Complete All in 1 pacs (at a cost of 28 cents per load), Ecover tablets (27 cents), Finish Powerball Tabs tablets (22 cents), and Method Smarty Dish tablets (21 cents), but other brands and formulations also performed adequately if used properly.
Consumer Reports also provides tips on optimizing the performance of your dishwasher and dishwashing detergent no matter which brand you use. For starters, load large items at the sides and back of the dishwasher so they don’t block water and detergent from reaching other dishes. And place the dirtier side of dishes towards the center of the machine to provide more exposure to the sprayer. Also, try to prevent dishes and utensils from nesting within one another so that the water can reach all surfaces.
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