The Magazine

Another Triumph for the Greens

To go with toilets that don’t flush and light bulbs that don’t light, we now have dishwashers that don’t wash.

Jan 31, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 19 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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My dishwasher is the Bosch SHE58C—an amazing machine. Stainless-steel front, concealed controls, six cycles to choose from. The manual runs a brisk 63 pages. When we got the Bosch, I read it cover to cover, highlighting and annotating as I went, marking the manufacturer’s preferred method of arranging dishes and the proper way to sit utensils in the dedicated wash basket. I took some pains to relay this information to my wife, though it did not please her as much as I imagined it would.

Another Triumph  for the Greens

Steven Chorley

At first, my Bosch was wonderful. Quiet as a wind’s whisper, the dishes were so clean you could eat off of them. But a few months ago I started noticing problems. A fork would come out with food between the tines; a glass would have bits of grime stuck to the bottom. Surely this was a fluke? Alas, no. My dishwasher no longer shines. What went wrong?

It so happens that in the last six months, a lot of people have suddenly discovered their dishwashers don’t work as well as they used to. The problem, though, isn’t the dishwashers. It’s the soap. Last July, acceding to pressure from environmentalists, America’s dishwasher detergent manufacturers decided to change their formulas. And the new detergents stink.

One of the key ingredients in dish detergent is (or was) phosphorus. Phosphorus is a sociable element, bonding easily and well with others. In detergent, it strips food and grease off dirty dishes and breaks down calcium-based stains. It also keeps the dirt suspended in water, so it can’t reattach to dishes. Best of all, it prevents the washed-away grime and minerals from gumming up the inner-workings of your dishwasher. Traditionally, phosphorus was loaded into dish detergent in the form of phosphates, which are compounds of phosphorus bonded to oxygen. (PO4 if you’re keeping score at home.) Prior to last July, most detergents were around 8 percent elemental phosphorus. Now they’re less than 0.5 percent phosphorus.

The result is detergents that don’t work very well. There have been a handful of stories in the media about consumer complaints. The New York Times noted that on the review section of the website for Cascade—Procter & Gamble’s market-leading brand—ratings plummeted after the switch, with only 11 percent of consumers saying they would recommend the product. One woman in Florida told National Public Radio that she called Procter & Gamble to complain about how its detergent no longer worked. The customer rep told her to consider handwashing the dishes instead.

Some NPR commenters agreed. “Like so many -others, I had disassembled my dishwasher, run multiple empty ‘cleaning cycles’ using all kinds of various chemical treatments, all trying to get my dishwasher ‘fixed,’ ” said one. “We assumed that something was wrong with the machine, that it was limed up, and we tried vinegar and other remedies with limited success,” wrote another. “We do wash some dishes by hand now, using more hot water than before, and also have simply lowered our standards for what constitutes ‘clean.’ ” Another commenter complained: “I live in AZ and had the same thing happen last year when it was introduced out here. I thought it was a reaction between the ‘Green’ soap and the hard water. I wrote to the company and they sent me about $30 in coupons—for other items and for their non-green soap. I dumped the 3 unopened bottles plus the one I was using.”

The detergents were so problematic that they caused environmental delinquency even among NPR listeners. One disappointed commenter rationalized his backsliding:

We first heard about the new phosphate-free detergent formulations almost a year ago. Wanting to do the Right Thing we rushed out and bought some and immediately began using it. The results, although not as bad as reported by some, were still pretty underwhelming. Our dishes and glassware were covered by a gritty film and so was the inside of the dishwasher. We are in Southern California and have very hard water. Adding vinegar to the rinse cycle helped *some* but still we found excessive buildup on our dishes. Disgusted with the new detergent, we decided to go back to something with phosphate. We were not able to find phosphate detergent at the supermarket, but some local discount stores sell supplies that are apparently remaindered by the manufacturers. We bought six boxes of old Cascade with phosphate—about a year’s supply. We figured someone would buy it—might as well be us. 

When Consumer Reports did laboratory testing on the new nil-phosphate detergents, they concluded that none of them “equaled the excellent (but now discontinued) product that topped our Ratings in August 2009.”

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