Advertisement
Environment

Is handwashing dishes worse for the environment than using a dishwasher? 

Old news, truthfully retold. This week The Big Issue assesses whether government COP26 spokesperson Allegra Stratton was right over claims cutting out rinsing before using a dishwasher could save the planet

Every week in Fact/Fiction, The Big Issue examines spurious claims, questionable studies or debatable stories from the press to determine whether they are fact or fiction. This week, The Big Issue investigates the environmental impact of washing dishes after Boris Johnson’s COP26 spokesperson Allegra Stratton suggested avoiding rinsing plates before putting them in the dishwasher could be a “microstep” towards saving the planet.

How it was told

If recent extreme weather hasn’t already made it crystal clear – we all have to do our bit to ensure the climate crisis isn’t sure-fire extinction.

Whether it’s the Met Office’s first-ever extreme heat warning in the UK, London flash floods or the devastating deluges in Germany, it’s an issue humanity has to reckon with – and fast.

The delayed COP26 conference is central to those plans with world leaders heading to Glasgow in November to determine the policies that will prevent catastrophe on Planet Earth.

But there are “micro-steps” we could all be taking in the meantime. The UK government’s COP26 spokesperson Allegra Stratton suggested a few last week, including cutting out rinsing food off your dishes before using a dishwasher.

“Micro-steps maybe, but all the more achievable because of it. Ahead of COP26, choose one thing: go One Step Greener,” said Stratton in the piece, published in The Daily Telegraph. “On your own, we are not pretending these steps will stop climate change.”

Advertisement
Advertisement

The piece ran on July 27 with the claim repeated in an online piece later in the day under the headline: “Want to be squeaky clean on the environment? ‘Don’t rinse your dishes’”.

Mail Online also reported on Stratton’s column, the site opted for: “Don’t rinse plates before putting them in the dishwasher, freeze old bread and ditch plastic shower gel bottles to save the planet, says Boris Johnson’s climate change spokeswoman”.

But is Stratton right?

Facts. Checked

It is true that cutting out rinsing and using a dishwasher is generally better for the environment than washing up in a sink – but for large parts of the population the change is not a “micro-step”.

Stratton is right that rinsing is inefficient and this is backed up by dishwasher detergent manufacturer Finish.

The manufacturer’s advice said that while rinsing off makes some of us “feel more productive” it is less efficient when it comes to saving water. As dishwashers clean use high temperatures to clean plates and that should be enough to remove food waste from the dishes, the advice added, and any issues that leave food residue at the end may mean the machine has a problem or needs a clean.

While the manufacturer has a clear motivation for talking up the attributes of the dishwasher – namely to sell you more detergent – it is not the only one to insist the machines are more efficient.

Energy Saving Trust estimates found handwashing dishes makes up around four per cent of an average household’s water use, whereas using a dishwasher amounts to one per cent.

A running tap can expel around two gallons (nine litres) of water per minute, so if you wash everything under a running tap you could use up to nine times as much water as using a dishwater.

So the environmental advantages are clear – but the reality is that not every household has a dishwasher. In fact, while the appliance has fast become a staple across Britain, it is still only in around half of homes and has done little to shed its tag as a luxury item.

Statista analysis of Office for National Statistics figures found the number of households that own a dishwasher rose from 18 per cent in 1994 to 49 per cent in 2018.

But there is a large discrepancy between the haves and have-nots when it comes to dishwasher ownership.

Just 14 per cent of families on the lowest incomes in 2016 owned a dishwasher, much lower than the 84 per cent of households in the highest income group.

So the “micro-step” only remains micro if you can afford it.

As humanity lurches ever closer to climate disaster, those living in poverty must not be left behind in the efforts to save the planet.

Worth repeating

Brits use 840 billion litres each year heating water for showers, spending £2.3bn

More than 740 billion litres is flushed down the loo

Dishwashers and washing machines use 360 billion litres each year, costing households £1.6bn in electricity bills (Energy Saving Trust)

Advertisement

Support your local vendor

Want to buy a copy of the magazine? We have over 1,200 Big Issue vendors in the UK. Each vendor buys a copy of the mag for £1.50 and sells it for £3, keeping the difference. Visit our interactive map to find your nearest vendor and support them today!

Recommended for you

Read All
How to respect the environment when wild swimming
Wild swimming

How to respect the environment when wild swimming

Ten simple steps to help the environment
Sustainability

Ten simple steps to help the environment

Top eco-friendly essentials for festival go-ers
Glastonbury

Top eco-friendly essentials for festival go-ers

How to cool down at home when heatwaves hit
Heatwaves

How to cool down at home when heatwaves hit

Most Popular

Read All
Exclusive: BT call centre sets up 'food bank' for its own staff
1.

Exclusive: BT call centre sets up 'food bank' for its own staff

Prince William: 'Why I wanted to work with The Big Issue'
2.

Prince William: 'Why I wanted to work with The Big Issue'

Rainn Wilson emailed Star Trek: Strange New Worlds to say Harry Mudd would 'fit right in'
3.

Rainn Wilson emailed Star Trek: Strange New Worlds to say Harry Mudd would 'fit right in'

The UK approach to replacing the Human Rights Act is just as worrying as the replacement itself
4.

The UK approach to replacing the Human Rights Act is just as worrying as the replacement itself

Keep up to date with The Big Issue. The leading voice on life, politics, culture and social activism direct to your inbox.