Clean dishes vs. reduced water pollution

Dishwasher detergent causes environmental conundrum for some in Washington State.

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If you had a choice between eating off dirty dishes or helping protect area waterways, which would you choose? In Spokane, Wash.,  where a state ban on phosphates in dishwasher detergent is being phased in, some residents are deciding in favor of squeaky-clean plates and glasses.

It turns out that phosphate-free dishwasher detergent -- mandated by Washington State lawmakers for 2010 and beyond, and also coming to Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Michigan, Vermont, Minnesota, Illinois, Massachusetts, and New York -- doesn't do a great job at cleaning dishes. Or, at least, the ones currently on the market don't.

So, complaining of greasy plates and pans with bits of food still stuck to them, a number of Spokanites are heading for Idaho (about 20 miles away) to smuggle home detergent that will do a better job.

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The ban -- which Congress is considering making national -- is to protect rivers and lakes, where phosphates contribute to the growth of algae, which depletes oxygen needed by fish.

If you thought that phosphates had been banned from detergents for a long time, you're only partially right. In 1993, they were banned from laundry detergents, but not from dishwasher detergents.

Consumers weren't all that fond of those early phosphate-free detergents either, and I recall that some people in early-adoption areas also went elsewhere to buy regular Tide and Cheer. But eventually, laundry detergents did get increased cleaning power. Or, at least, the complaints stopped.

Manufacturers of dishwasher detergents say they're working on improving their products and had asked that the new laws take effect in July 2010.

But legislators didn't listen.

Part of the environmental issue with starting before the present ecofriendly detergents are up to the job is that residents who are unhappy wih them tend to compensate in not-so-green ways -- running the dishwasher on the long pots and pans cycle (which also heats up the water more) or driving to Idaho.

You might also wonder if an early unhappy experience with detergents containing .05 percent phosphate will make those residents slow to try improved products when they become available.

As you might expect, practically everyone has an opinion on this.

On Softpedia, Sci Pry opines that  "when people [who are still using phosphate detergents] find that there are less and less fish in stores, they should know that they only have themselves to blame, and no one else. "

In Washington State, Sound Politics says that the environmental group that was the main player in getting the dishwasher detergent ban enacted is encouraging residents to try various brands to find one that works, but hasn't itself been able to find one.

Patrick Edaburn on The Moderate Voice says: "Interestingly phosphates were banned from laundry soap since 1993 and as far as I can tell my clothes still get reasonably clean. It looks like in this case however they need a little more time to perfect the formula for a low or non phosphate detergent before the law is expanded nationally."

Ethel C. Fenig on American Thinker notes: "Folks in Spokane County in Washington state are singing along with Kermit the Frog 'It's not easy being green.' "

Words of wisdom from "Sesame Street," no matter which side you take on this issue.

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