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I am writing this post for a friend of mine who complained that she hasn't been able to get her dishes clean in the dishwasher without pre-rinsing ever since phosphates were removed from most major brands of dishwasher detergent last July. I hadn't heard of the change and instead of empathizing with her, I cheered, explaining that phosphates end up in our lakes and drinking-water reservoirs, causing major algae growth that chokes out fish and other plant life.
But despite my exultation, she complained, "But now I can't get my dishes clean without pre-rinsing them. And isn't that bad for the environment too?"
My friend is not alone in her complaints - the New York Times reported in September of last year that many consumers are unhappy with the change, citing the same complaint about pre-rinsing that my friend gave. One person said, “If I’m using more water and detergent, is that saving anything?”
I've been using a phosphate-free dishwasher detergent for about five years now, and my dishes almost always come out clean. I do not pre-rinse my dishes in the usual sense - forget the wasted water, I don't have time to wash all of my dishes before I wash my dishes. But I have figured out a few techniques for pre-rinsing that don't require extra time or water.
- When my family finishes our morning smoothie , I fill one cup with water, wipe with a rag, pour that same dirty water into the next cup, wipe, pour into the next cup, wipe, etc.
- Caked-on oatmeal is especially problematic for my dishwasher. If someone eats oatmeal, rather than filling up their bowl to soak, I leave it in the sink. As people use the faucet throughout the day, the bowl fills up with water, and by the time I'm ready to load the dishwasher, the oatmeal wipes right off.
- Rather than filling up pots and pans with fresh water to soak, I save them for last in my pile of handwashed dishes and then let them soak overnight in the dirty dish water.
- Use vinegar as your rinsing aid. I've noticed that if my dishes start coming out of the dishwasher with little bits of food still clinging, it's because I need to add more vinegar to the rinse aid spot. It really works.
- Consider switching to a different detergent. A brand that has always worked for you in the past may not work now simply because it's formula has changed. Consumer Reports tested 24 low-phosphate dishwasher detergents last September. Their winner was Finish Quantum, followed by Finish Powerball Tabs, Cascade Complete All In , Cascade with Dawn ActionPacs, Ecover tablets, and Method Smarty Dish tablet. If you're looking for an eco-friendly brand, check out Grist's review. I use Seventh Generation because it's the cheapest (ha!) eco brand I can find locally and it works for me.