Powering Down: Washing the Dishes by Hand

A little confession - of all the appliances I have ditched recently, the dishwasher is the one that I actually miss. Not only did it quietly get on with washing my dishes, it was also great for hiding the dirty ones from view until dishwashing time. However, that little wistful note aside, there have been positive outcomes from returning to dishwashing by hand.

First, ALL the dishes get done. So many times in the past I have packed the dishwasher, and decided that my work in the kitchen was done, and all those extra pots and pans and delicates just loitered about, waiting for some moment of dishwashing inspiration to hit me.. it was like having to do the dishes twice, which seemed excessive.

Second, hand washing is gentle. It doesn't produce cloudy glasses, with tiny abrasions all over them. There are so many items that can't go in the dishwasher - wooden utensils, old china, anything with gold edging on it, really large things, sharp knives, thin plastic.. but it can all go into the sink. Granted, the crockery isn't boiled and sanitised by handwashing - in fact, if you look at my washing-up water at the end of a load of dishes sometimes, you might wonder if there is any cleaning power in it at all... but excessive cleanliness has been blamed for all sorts of evils, from proliferating allergies, to asthma, to gut flora issues. So I am expecting that this innovation will cause us to be radiating good health any day now..

Hand washing also saves energy and water. You don't need much water to wash dishes. I start with an inch in the sink and wash and rinse all the glasses and mugs under the tap which tops up the level a little. Nothing else gets rinsed. I don't use our second rinsing sink for rinsing - that is where the drainer sits for drip drying the dishes. Sometimes I am forced to refill the sink for all the dirty things - but I wash them first in the dirty water, so that they are reasonably clean when I wash them properly in the clean water. Then I use that water to wipe down the stove top and benches. Also, the washing up gets done with a bulk eco-detergent from the wholefoods shop, which I am sure is much better for us than whatever is in the dishwasher powder. I am pretty sure we could eat the dishwashing liquid, whereas a substance that causes pitting on glassware? Doesn't sound all that healthy.

My next hand-wash-the-dishes positive is its social aspect. After dinner the girls and I all wash and dry the dishes together. Not always happily, mind you. But there we are, all in the same space, talking, arguing, complaining, singing stupid songs, telling each other to stop singing stupid songs.. Unpacking and packing the dishwasher is generally a solitary pursuit. Someone can do one of those jobs now, and someone else can do the other half an hour later. But the dishes have to be done together or you run out of room in the dish drainer. Although in our house the dryer has been known to slink off at the moment she judges that the rest of the dishes will fit in the drainer and 'drip-dry'. Or as my mother says, "We can let God dry the rest." If only God had known, when he created human beings, that not only would he be blamed for everything, but he would also have to dry the dishes..

The beginning of our hand-washing-the-dishes experiment was when my parents came to live with us last year while they were house hunting. It might seem like a bad idea to plan to start washing up by hand just when family numbers increased to six, but my parents have never owned a dishwasher, and have had a dish washing routine for decades. So we followed their lead, the children complaining bitterly all the while about the perfectly good dishwasher sitting in the corner of the kitchen. I was careful not to buy any more dishwasher powder, to avoid temptation. My original plan was to take out the dishwasher and have extra cupboard space, but then we moved into a house with no dishwasher, so that decision was made for us.

We do a lot of dishes. We make almost all our food and that creates a lot of dishes. We are getting a little more efficient. We each have a glass and a mug that lasts all day, and I am about to put my foot down about the blender. The girls make smoothies with berries and yoghurt and coconut cream, and sometimes they make healthy green sludge. This is all no doubt very good for them, but means washing the blender twice a day sometimes. New rule - you use the blender, you wash the blender and pop it in the drainer for good old God to dry.

Of course, the big reason I stopped using the dishwasher and don't plan to use one again, is for social justice and ecological reasons. We, the middle class in developed nations, are actually the one percent. We live in luxury that we consider normal because our neighbours live in luxury too. There are seven billion people in our world, and if they all demanded dishwashers we would wreck the planet before you can say, 'But dishwashers save water!' Now, I say this as a person who still owns a washing machine, a fridge and a car, and the same arguments can be made for them. But washing the dishes by hand is easy, and I am going for the low-hanging fruits of energy and resource consumption first! What if I can reduce my reliance on unnecessary gadgets by half, or even more, without significantly reducing the quality of my life? What if I discover the quality of my life actually increases without all those gadgets? What if we could all do that? What if all those people who currently have boring, life-sapping jobs in a dishwasher factory could become artisanal cheesemakers instead? Because I would much rather spend my hard-earned cash on nice cheese than dishwasher tablets!

Next: Why life is so much better now that I have thrown out the telly..


GretchenJoanna said…
This post will go down in my book (or in my computer docs) as the definitive work on the subject, as it covers all the many reasons for ditching that inferior dishwashing machine, which can't accomplish half of what human dishwashers do.

Also it is deserving of my prize because it both acknowledges God's part in the process and is very funny. I hope I can remember to quote you about God washing dishes.

If I had been as able, this is exactly what I would have liked to write on the subject - oh, but I would have added the bit about loading the dishwasher being too much strain on my brain.

Thanks, Jo!
Jo said…
Gretchen Joanna, yes, to the brain strain of packing the dishwasher. Also the back strain. Plus, every household packs the dishwasher differently, and includes or excludes certain items, or rinses or not - so it is really hard to help with the dishes in those households. Whereas it is easy and intuitive to jump in and hand wash the dishes at a friend's place after Sunday lunch out:)
GretchenJoanna said…
Ah, yes, even more good points!

Sometimes when I am a guest I just boldly start washing dishes by hand, to get around that unfamiliar-dishwasher problem, and don't think anyone minds :-)
W. B. Jorgenson said…
Wonderful post! This speaks to me quite well. It explains exactly why I don't plan on owning a dishwasher. It is really much easier to do by hand right after a meal than to just load or unload a machine at odd times. It's also much better for children for the chores to be something to do together than the "do this, if you need me I'll be somewhere else" type, in my opinion at least.
Unknown said…
My goodness you have an attractive sink and dishes. If i owned that duck egg blue bowl i would have it out on display while God dried it as well. Your new home is the one of my dreams. Im sure even your laundry looks amazing.
Jo said…
WB, welcome! I am frequently all about 'if you need me I'll be somewhere else'. However, as you say, it's not nearly as effective as 'let's do this together'.

Lynda, don't I just have a lovely sink? I do love my wee cottage. Alas, the laundry is a very functional space at the end of the enclosed back porch with sliding doors to hide it. Not pretty, but the clothes get clean, which is what matters.. and yes, I must admit to many years of buying all the blue crockery in sight. Which is why, like many of us of a certain age, I actually never need to buy anything ever again:)
W. B. Jorgenson said…
Hi Jo,

Thank you for the welcome! I think that the chores done as a group are good to have, and the solo ones as well. I think the solo ones become more important as kids age, but doing things together is always important for a family, and I'm not too sure it matters what it is.

And I have to agree with Lynda, even piled like a mess in the sink, those dishes look wonderful! :)
Bek said…
I have a pet hate against dishwashers. We had one from when I was a teenager and I always hated the thought on food going crusty and getting smelly in the dishwasher before a whole load was collected and it was all finally washed. Bleugh! So I never had one. But I reckon I'd make an exception for party dish washing. That is a pain in the ass!
Fernglade Farm said…
Hi Jo,

Well done. That was a beautifully told story too. Lovely stuff.

There is a lot of low hanging fruit isn't there? The social arrangements are the hardest thing to adapt too. I've found every time we've incorporated some sort of old school tech like this it takes a while to adjust to the new circumstances and arrangements. It has happened so often now, I wonder just how much of our social arrangements and organisation really revolves around our technology. And I have no idea at all at the extent of it. Dunno really.

Oh yeah, those chemicals can't be good. Glass just doesn't feel right to me after a cycle through a dishwasher.


Jo said…
WB, yes, my 16yo can do most of the chores better than I can and I leave her to it. The 11yo still gets terribly distracted and needs supervision..

Bek, clearly you need to train your friends to help wash up after parties!

Chris, yes, so much of what we do is a matter of social conditioning. I was a member of a savings forum for a while, and I remember a having a social conundrum where one of the very cash-strapped members, a single mum with 2 daughters like myself, was buying a dishwasher that she really couldn't afford, because her previous one broke, and after all, 'it's a necessity'. The other forum members agreed wholeheartedly. It took me a while to work out what really bothered me about this, then I realised it was because we have become so dependent on machines, that we will put ourselves in debt to keep using them. We have effectively become their slaves..

Needless to say, I didn't air that point of view. I am a bit socially impaired, but not that much..
W. B. Jorgenson said…

I find that very true. The hardest part of living a simpler, less machine dependent lifestyle is not the skills themselves, it's the effort to alter social arrangements to this new way of doing things. I worry about what'll happen once this goes from just the fringes and poor to a necessity for the bulk of the population.


I volunteer with kids around 11, and sounds to me like she's typical for her age. The kids I volunteer with also get very easily distracted, but it can be a lot of fun to see what it is now. Kids are both wonderful and incredibly frustrating sometimes, aren't they?

I suppose that you're right, we have become slaves to the machines. I'm not seeing any Hollywood movie being made on this though. It would make a nice change of pace if anyone did make one...
Jo said…
WB, 'slaves to machines' sounds so dramatic and Hollywood blockbuster, doesn't it? When really we have slowly been conned to think we need to spend lots of money on them because we can't do without them. And then spend a whole lot of time enthralled by them (thinking of anything with moving pictures on it here). That is a whole lot less dramatic, but still, to my mind, seriously disturbing.
W. B. Jorgenson said…
It is a lot less dramatic, but the typical Hollywood movie is too dramatic for my tastes. And I will definitely agree with you, it is quite disturbing. Alas, however, few people seem to notice...

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