Hey! Now that we’ve gotten your attention with our greenwash-y, SEO-friendly title (thanks, Google), you should know that while there’s no such thing as “eco-friendly” dishwasher detergent, here’s what to be wise on when you’re shopping so you can pick the best option for you, the planet, and the people making your stuff.
In 2022, the global dishwashing detergent market is expected to reach $3.15 billion, which means that hundreds of millions of gallons of dishwasher detergent are going to end up in our waterways. Even though they’ll help wash dishes along the way, it’s important to consider what’s going into these detergents and how those ingredients impact the health of our bodies and our environment.
What To Be Wise On
Washing dishes with a machine can reduce associated greenhouse gas emissions by 72% compared to washing manually, according to a recent life-cycle assessment (LCA). To maximize the environmental impact of this switch, certain ingredients should be avoided when purchasing dishwasher detergent. Utilize helpful certification labels to ensure that your dishwashing tablets, powders and pods are free from harsh chemicals that can increase marine toxicity and eutrophication.
Factors To Consider
For a product that’s supposed to keep dishes clean, dishwasher detergent sure comes with a lot of ingredients with “dirty” habits. Before you purchase dishwasher detergent, try to avoid some of these common yet harmful components.
Some of the biggest offenders in dishwasher detergents are phosphates. Excessive use of phosphates may lead to eutrophication, which is the release of excess nutrients into bodies of water. When too many nutrients enter the water, it can lead to a huge increase in algae (aka that gross film of green stuff on the surface), which can release nasty toxins as they grow that make humans and fish sick. Even worse, these algal blooms can block sunlight from getting to plants in the water, which can lower oxygen levels and suffocate fish. One of the most common phosphates in dishwasher detergent is sodium tripolyphosphate (sometimes abbreviated STPP). Look for detergents that replace this with methyl glycine diacetic acid (MGDA). This ingredient substitution reduces phosphates released into the wastewater, which lowers the environmental risk of eutrophication.
Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) is an emulsifying cleaning agent used to break down and wash away the dirt and grime that water can’t get rid of on its own. It also happens to be a highly toxic threat to aquatic life, from algae to frogs to fish. If you don’t trust us, take it from the World Health Organization, which unequivocally states that SLS “...is toxic to aquatic organisms. It is strongly advised not to let the chemical enter into the environment.” Avoid dishwasher detergents that contain this harsh ingredient…please.
Fragrances are highly elusive ingredients because they are protected from disclosure. While “fragrance” might appear to be one ingredient on the label, that word could potentially comprise hundreds of chemical compounds just for one scent! These fragrances often include phthalates. Phthalates enable fragrances to become soluble and are known endocrine disruptors in both humans and aquatic life and can even lower the production of testosterone. Studies have found that prenatal exposure to phthalates can decrease mental and motor development in children. Doesn’t strike us as the kind of thing we’d want to use to “sanitize” our glasses and silverware, so look for “fragrance-free” or “phthalate-free” labels.
Dishwasher detergent comes in many forms, and choosing one over the other could be the difference between creating extra waste, releasing microplastics into our environment and ultimately, producing more greenhouse gas emissions. The three most common forms of dishwasher detergent are (1) liquid, (2) pods, and (3) powder.
Liquid (Plastic Bottles)
Liquid detergent is typically packaged in a plastic bottle made of high-density polyethylene (HDPE). While this form of plastic has one of the highest recycling rates in the U.S. at 30%, it’s still a plastic, which means it’s derived from petroleum (aka oil). To extract oil, we need to drill and frack, which both have a host of negative environmental consequences (*cough*, oil spills, *cough*) that are not infrequent and can devastate already fragile wildlife populations. Even if the detergent bottle uses recycled HDPE, an LCA showed that recycled HDPE actually has higher impacts on ozone layer depletion, climate change, and acidification than virgin HDPE. If you can, avoid liquid detergent to eliminate more plastic waste from being created.
Pods have become a popular choice for detergent because of their convenience, but they are typically packaged in a water-soluble plastic, known as polyvinyl alcohol (PVA). Even though the water in the dishwasher should break down the PVA encasing, research has found that not all of the material breaks down, and that 7,000 tons of PVA end up passing through wastewater treatments and into our oceans each year. Since PVA can absorb antibiotics and heavy metals, it ends up carrying them across the ocean, which marine life can then eat and get sick from. Not to mention that tiny particles of plastic that end up in our waterways known as microplastics can further disrupt marine life digestion. If you’re looking for convenience, try dishwasher tablets instead of pods to eliminate the need for PVA and other plastics.
Powder detergent is usually sold in cardboard boxes, which can be highly recyclable, but not if they’re lined with a thin coat of plastic. Curbside recycling won’t accept paper waste that has plastic attached to it, like coffee cups, and if you’re not careful, trying to recycle this type of waste can result in damages to recycling machinery. However, powder detergent is lighter than liquid, which means that it creates fewer emissions during transport. Finch recommends using a powder detergent, or a tablet if you’re looking for something even more convenient.
When we’re in a bind or overwhelmed by greenwashy-messaging, certifications can help us make choices that keep the environment and social good in mind. Here are some certifications to look out for on dishwasher detergent.
Managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the BioPreferred label makes it easier for consumers to opt for bio-based products. This means that the product’s ingredients are primarily derived from raw materials, such as plants, that provide an alternative to conventional petroleum-based products. Products that bear this label have a verified amount of renewable biological ingredients that are strictly monitored by the USDA. Dishwashing products with the BioPreferred label have at least 58% bio-based ingredients, which can reduce adverse environmental and health impacts.
EPA Safer Choice
An EPA Safer Choice label indicates that the chemicals in a product have been reviewed by the Environmental Protection Agency to meet strict safety criteria for both human and environmental health. All ingredients have to meet these standards and manufacturers have to disclose all ingredients (looking at you, fragrances!). After investigating product performance, pH, packaging, and other criteria, some dishwasher detergents can earn the Safer Choice label so that you can rest easier knowing your product isn’t harming you, workers’ health, fish, and the environment.
Leaping Bunny is an internationally recognized symbol that guarantees no new animal tests were conducted with any ingredients in a product. It’s the most stringent animal rights standard, so prioritize this one if you want to alleviate your animal welfare concerns.
A Few Key Takeaways
Detergent should make things cleaner, not dirtier. Make sure to avoid harmful ingredients, like phosphates, SLS and fragrances, and look out for some of the certifications to ensure you’re making choices you can feel good about. Opt for powder detergent or tablets if you’re a sucker for convenience. If you’re choosing to cut down on water use by using a dishwasher, then make sure your detergent isn’t negating those impacts.
Common Questions We Get
“What kind of dishwasher detergent is the most sustainable?”
While there’s really no such thing as “sustainable” dishwasher detergent because using it will always produce water waste and other environmental impacts, we came up with this list of more sustainable dishwasher detergents based on what they’re made of.