Washing dishes by hand wastes water

by Tracy Stokes on July 21, 2006

in Conservation, Sustainable Lifestyle

I’m confused when I hear people say they’re saving water by washing their dishes by hand because when I bought my first dishwasher two years ago, I did my research and found that by buying a AAA-rated machine I would be saving not only time, but water and electricity too. Still, the myth that dishwashers are water-gobbling evils prevails, and so I was grateful and relieved to read in The Guardian that it’s now official, get a dishwasher and save water.

A study by Waterwise, an NGO dedicated to reducing water wastage, shows that washing dishes by hand is wasting millions of litres of water every day in the UK. This supports research at the University of Bonn that shows that by using a dishwasher, households could save up to 11,000 litres of water annually. That’s a lot of water!

While dishwashers back in the 1970’s used on average 50 litres per wash, modern appliances use as little as 9 litres per cycle. I’m guessing the average sink holds around 20 litres at least, and that’s not taking into account changing the water when it gets greasy, or rinsing dishes.

So, if you’ve been holding back on a dishwasher purchase for environmental reasons, think again. And don’t stop there, take water conservation seriously with these simple tips from Waterwise:

At Home
  • Healthy teeth healthy rivers: Remember to turn off the tap while brushing your teeth-a running tap wastes over 6 litres per minute. If the entire adult population of England and Wales remembered to do this, we could save 180 mega litres a day-enough to supply nearly 500,000 homes.
  • Drop a hippo in your cistern: About a quarter of all the clean, drinkable water we use in our homes is flushed down a toilet. If you’re in the market for a new loo, consider buying a water efficient toilet or one with a dual flush. If your loo is still as good as new, put a hippo or other displacement device into the cistern to save some water. Give your water company a ring; they can give you one of these devices for free.
  • Stop those drips: A dripping tap wastes at least 5,500 litres of water a year: that’s enough water wasted to fill a paddling pool every week for the whole summer. Mending your dripping tap washer could save you over £18 a year.
  • Fill up those dishwashers: Hand-washing dishes typically uses about 63 litres per session; if those dishes are rinsed off under a running tap the total water used averages 150 litres-in comparison, a modern dishwasher can use as little as 15 litres of water per cycle. But make sure you fill the dishwasher or you’ll be wasting even more than if you were to wash up by hand. And if you’re in the market for a new dishwasher, look for the energy efficiency ‘A’ rated machines since these usually waste the least amount of water. If you take a closer look at the energy label, it actually does tell you how much water the machine uses.
  • Bathers beware: A bath can use up a lot of water (over 100 litres!), while a shower only uses a third of that amount. But beware since many power-showers actually use more than a bath if you shower for more than five minutes. If you’re the die-hard tub-type, you can minimise your water use by reusing your bathwater to water your houseplants or garden.
  • Wishy-washy machines: Before starting your washing machine, wait for a full load-a full load uses less water than two half loads; so, you’ll be able to save money on energy and water. And just like dishwashers, washing machines labelled ‘A’ on energy efficiency tend to be more water efficient.
  • Frigid water: Fill a jug with tap water and leave it to cool in your fridge. This way you don’t have to run the tap for ages just to get a cold drink.
  • Burst pipe preparedness: Check out where your main stop valve is and make sure that you can turn it on and off. If ever a pipe bursts, you’ll know how to cut off the flow.
  • Sparkling asparagus: By washing your fruits and veg in a bowl rather than under a running tap, you could cut down on water waste effortlessly. And as an added bonus, you can use the leftover water to feed your houseplants.
  • Rubbish for rubbish bins: Try to avoid flushing away cotton balls, make-up tissues, and those pesky spiders-throwing them in the bin will cut down on the amount of water that is wasted by every flush.
And Outside
  • Be sprinkler savvy: We all love our gardens, but sprinklers can use as much as 1,000 litres of water per hour-that’s more than a family of four can use in a whole day. Using your sprinkler early in the morning or late in the evening will mean less water will evaporate from your garden and more will get to the roots, where you actually want it to go.
  • You can with a watering can: Your hosepipe can spew as much as 18 litres of water a minute. By using a watering can in your garden you can significantly reduce the amount of water wasted; or consider fitting it with a trigger gun to control the flow (although during a hosepipe ban you will need to use a watering can).
  • Invest in a butt: Your roof collects about 85,000 litres of rain each year which then just runs straight into the sewers. This could fill 450 water butts with free water: you could water your garden, your houseplants, or wash your car for free! To get a butt, call your local water company.
  • The bucket and sponge approach: Rather than washing your car with a running hosepipe, try using a bucket and sponge instead. (Better still: fill the bucket up with water from the water butt). Just 30 minutes with a hosepipe will use more water than the average family uses in a day. And, using a bucket will give your car a much more precise wash.
  • Magnificent mulch: Mulching is one of the greatest things you can do for your garden. Mulches such as pebbles, gravel, cocoa shell, chipped bark, and grass clippings should be applied as a five to eight centimetre layer; but do avoid mulching too close to plant stems as this can lead to rotting in winter. Mulching will not only keep away water-loving weeds, but it will also keep the soil cool, decrease evaporation, and reduce soil compaction.
  • Soak, don’t sprinkle: Giving your plants’ roots a good soaking once or twice a week in dry weather is much better than lightly watering them every day because most of that water just evaporates away. Do remember, though, that new plantlings do need regular watering until they are established.

Via: Guardian Unlimited

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Sage July 24, 2006 at 6:07 pm

This is a great post, and I don’t want to rain on it, but I’ve heard about the dishwasher as water-saver idea years ago and have been arguing against it ever since.

I wash dishes at home the way I do camping, with a soapy cloth and a quick dip in a bit of water to rinse. I scrape well instead of rinsing, and altogether I don’t use more than about 1/5th of my sink space of water. And I only use the electricity needed to warm the little water I use. I know people who pressure-wash in the sink to pre-rinse, then fill one sink to wash and the other to rinse. This is certainly a problem.

I believe that teaching people less wasteful sink-washing techniques could be better for the environment in the long run than encouraging purchase of another appliance. I’m sure the study doesn’t include the water and electricity needed and the waste produced in manufacturing the dishwasher.


Tracy July 24, 2006 at 8:00 pm

Hi Sage,

Thanks for your comment.

I’m assuming you’re washing for one, correct me if I’m wrong. And I can see how your method would work well for a single person or even a couple, washing up after one meal, but for those of us who need to wash pots, pans, breakfast, lunch and dinner plates and utensils for 4+ people, I certainly wouldn’t be able to do it with less than 9 litres of water in a sink.

The waterwise study did not include the impact of electricity usage, however, when I did my research before buying, I found that some dishwashers do in fact make savings on electricity compared to heating water conventionally. A AAA-rated Miele dishwasher will save on average 400 Kw of electricity per year (based on washing one full load per day).

I’m completely sold on the idea, if you hadn’t already guessed.


Jane July 24, 2006 at 10:32 pm

OK, you’ve got me converted…. we hardly use our dishwasher (it was fitted in the kitchen when we moved in) as I thought it was a waste as there is always something to be washed by hand (e.g. the pans were bought before we had a dishwasher so can’t go in).

I’ll now use the dishwasher! (My husband will be pleased….)


Yolanda Graves January 30, 2013 at 8:49 pm

i am so in love wit my dishwasher it saves me and my husband jayden lots of time we dont have to worry about coming home and washing dishes our dish washer saves us money and time and its all thanks to my husband jayden williams


Catana July 25, 2006 at 6:00 pm

Statistics about water use are pretty useless when they are based on assumptions that may not be true. I have no idea why the only measurement is based on filling a sink with water for handwashing dishes. A bowl large enough for the average plate is perfectly adequate for the soapy water. Items don’t have to be submerged, just gone over with a sponge or scrubber. For exceptionally messy items, like pots and pans, fill them with hot soapy water, let them soak, and use the same water (unless it’s too greasy) for washing additional items.

Not everyone has access to a dishwasher, but everyone can use common sense and save water. I live alone now, but I used the same dishwashing methods for a family of four.


Liz July 27, 2006 at 1:50 pm

I think it’s important to note that just as with a clothes washing machine, a diswasher should only be fun when it’s full.

However, I agree with Sage that learning less-wasteful dish-washing techniques would go a long way. My husband and I always hand wash with minimal amounts of water and a soapy sponge, and we don’t have the space or inclination to add another appliance to our kitchen.

There’s no “best” way… each person should do the things that work the best for them, while being mindful of resources. I’m not sure if I’d be as pro-handwashing if I had a family, but this is what works for us.

Great list of suggestions… although I haven’t washed my car in years and it still looks fine!


robinf January 22, 2008 at 6:21 am

Not to mention that the diswasher is far more sanitary than handwashing. I see few people handwash the way you’re supposed to (and it grosses me out when I eat at other people’s houses)– i.e. submerge each plate in piping hot water for at least 30 seconds, then rinse in a seperate tub of water. I see a couple people mentioned here using small amounts of water. I can see this working for a few plates (in fact, I might even try this if I need to wash just a few plates without a dishwasher– thanks). But I do not think you could keep a small amount of water hot long enough to disinfect an entire load of dishes. Which is why the dishwasher comes into play. It’s more efficient in bulk. And, you know, even if there are only a couple people in your household, you just wait until the dishwasher is full to run it. In other words, there is a greater time between loads, but overall you’re still using less water than many small batches of dishes washed by hand. You just can’t beat a dishwasher in the long run.


FJ September 16, 2008 at 12:25 pm

This is token Greenism. Firstly, you mention a AAA machine, which one needs to go out and purchase. Secondly, when most wash dishes by hand they let the water run too long (maybe the entire time they’re washing) instead of being conservative with the water.

This is to say nothing of the fact that we’re overly reliant on the convenience of machines; as efficient as we might make them, stuffing dishes into a dishwasher or clothes into an “efficient” washing machine, pressing a button, and waiting for magic to happen is no way to live (though most of us can’t give that up). Simplifying our lives across the board would make points like this moot in terms of what we can do to help our local environment, because as it is, we use far too many resources daily.


Brianne October 26, 2008 at 3:24 am

I agree with Sage and FJ, people need to stop relying on technology. I can see both sides, if you have a new energy efficient dishwasher it’s probably going to be better than handwashing – especially if you just bought a house or are renting a place with one already there. Otherwise, the amount of energy and materials to make one – I’m tossed about that.

The other concern for me, I am renting and the dishwasher is definitely not the most efficient and to get dishes clean you MUST pre-rinse which defeats the whole purpose. Now it’s an oversized drying rack for my handwashing. Thanks for all the ideas to adjust my washing technique to conserve more water and energy.

I’m getting a water aerator for the sink to save even more water hopefully. And thanks again to everyone.


Patrick February 2, 2010 at 5:32 pm

I would argue that the idea that dishwashwers save water is one people desperately want to believe because it diverts attention from the real reason for using them, which is simple convenience. The convenience factor is obvious for large families, but for one, two, or even three people, a dishwasher is going to take three or four days to fill, tying up an increasing percentage of the household dish/utensil supply along the way.

More to the point, I hand-wash with a trickle of water, and towel or air-dry, and I find it extremely difficult to imagine that that approach is anywhere near as resource-intensive as a dishwasher, especially when you factor in its built-in electric dryer.

Ok, compared to most of the people I’ve seen wash dishes, yes, a dishwasher probably saves water. But as with so many other environmental issues we’re facing, that’s an awareness and/or conscience thing. “Look at how much water I save if I wash my dishes in a somewhat-wasteful dishwasher instead of using a really-wasteful approach by hand!!!”

Do they save time? Absolutely. Do they save water? Highly suspect.

But changing how we wash dishes is a tiny fraction of the environmental impact we have compared to diet. Want to make a real difference? What it takes to get food onto our plates is far more of an issue than how we get food off of them.

A somewhat light-hearted reference:

The resource-savings for a plant-based diet are huge – probably the single biggest impact we can influence as individuals.


water management June 2, 2011 at 1:39 pm

As you mention that dishwasher is more effective way of saving water than washing dishes by hand, but still there are some people who think that washing dishes by hand saves more water as they previously know how much water is going to be needed. You are saying that you have done some research over it and you concluded that dishwasher is the best way, then it would be good as dishwasher would solve two purposes first is saving water and it provides convenience as well.


Waste Not May 9, 2013 at 11:29 pm

People still waste a lot of water when they use dishwashers because of all the pre-washing they do at the sink BEFORE they load the dishwasher. The best way to save water is to make sure you scrape your plates into your garbage and NOT down the sink, a rubber spatula is great or if you’ve used paper napkins for the meal, just reuse those to do the scraping. I watch people clean their dishes before loading, so that by the time they finish they’ve used double the water their machine would have used, thus defeating the machine’s efficiency.


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