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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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Grace Segrist, of Mumma’s Appliances in central Pennsylvania, explains that for the last five years, dishwasher technology has been walking a tightrope between efficiency and performance and the switch to phosphate-free detergents finally pushed many consumers over the edge. “The old dishwashers used 16 to 18 gallons of water during a wash cycle,” Segrist explains, “and used hotter water, too.” Five years ago Energy Star units arrived on the scene that use only 6 to 8 gallons of lower-temperature water. Between those changes and the new detergents, Segrist estimates that about half her customers now call in to complain about the quality of the wash. Adding to the problem is that unlike when Coca-Cola made a big to-do of switching formulas in 1985, the new dish detergents were slipped onto shelves under cover of night. “People didn’t have a huge knowledge base on how phosphate-free would affect their dishwashers,” she says, “so people didn’t know what the problem was.”

So why take out the phosphates in the first place? The environment, of course. When phosphorus gets into fresh water, it acts as a fertilizer for algae. When the bumper crop of algae later dies, its decomposition takes up oxygen in the water. And reduced levels of dissolved oxygen are harmful to fish.

But the industrial giants who manufacture dish detergent didn’t decide to reduce phosphate levels on their own. They were compelled. There’s nothing new about that. Governments routinely force both businesses and consumers to make trade-offs they wouldn’t otherwise make. For instance, by 2014, you’ll no longer be able to buy traditional, functional, cheap, incandescent light bulbs—because the government believes that compact-fluorescent light bulbs are better. What’s interesting about the case of the lousy dishwasher detergent is that the new formulas aren’t the result of a crushing federal mandate. Rather, the entire nation’s dish detergent supply was changed because two politicians in Spokane, Washington, wanted phosphates banned. And now the rest of America is living with the consequences.

Running through the center of the dish detergent story is the Spokane River. Spokane County sits on the eastern edge of Washington state, hard on the Idaho border. The county seat is the city of Spokane, through which the Spokane River courses. One hundred and eleven miles long, the Spokane flows out of Idaho’s Lake Coeur d’Alene, 30 miles to the east. It snakes westward along the I-90 corridor until it cuts through the heart of downtown Spokane—giving the city its glorious metropolitan waterfall—before turning north and eventually joining the Columbia River at Lake Roosevelt.

Before 1958, raw sewage from the towns along the Spokane went straight into the water. With mines and some heavy industry, this made for a messy river. So in 1958, the city built a water-treatment plant, which removed 60 percent of suspended solids from the waste and treated the water with chlorine before pumping it back into the river. This helped somewhat, but the Spokane was still less than pristine. In 1972 Congress passed the federal Clean Water Act, which stipulated that bodies of water such as the Spokane should be “fishable and swimmable” by 1983. It wasn’t.

A large part of the Spokane’s problems were the result of phosphorus, which entered the river from a number of sources. There were the “point-sources”—meaning large local operations, such as the water-treatment plant, the Kaiser Aluminum works in nearby Trentwood, and the Inland Empire Paper plant. And then there were the “non-point sources,” run-off from lawn and agricultural fertilizers and animal waste (which contain phosphorus), leaking septic systems, and materials washed into the sewer system, such as the detergents used by automatic dishwashers.

In 1977 the Spokane suffered a particularly bad series of algae blooms, which were followed by major fish kills. Residents filed a lawsuit against the city, which in turn agreed to remove 85 percent of phosphorus from the water leaving the treatment plant. But the fixes were slow in coming. One of the Clean Water Act’s requirements was that states establish models for how much pollution its waterways can tolerate. Such mapping involves establishing a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for each type of pollutant entering a given body of water and then allocating limits to which local businesses and governments must adhere. Washington state did not begin mapping its water until 1998.

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