By in large, the a dishwasher is not only going to use less water, but overall less: less water, soap, and energy. Some things to consider are: How many things are you washing? How dirty did they start out (for example, do they really just need a wipe down)? Check out this very thorough analysis of handwashing versus dishwasher below.
Much depends on your hand-washing habits and the type of dishwasher you own. Much of what makes hand-washing less green is the amount of water and the energy needed to heat it. The dishwaher, in this respect, uses less in both areas. However it is possible to use less energy by handwashing if you carefully manage your water temperature and use. Overall the dishwasher leaves less bacteria on the dishes, takes less time, and is easier on the environment.
According to an article on TreeHugger.com, a study at the University of Bonn in Germany found that dishwashers use half the energy, one sixth of the water and less soap than traditional hand washing.
It’s a tradeoff: dishwashers do use less water than most people would use for an equivalent load, but the detergent used in dishwashing machines is extremely corrosive and polluting, and as far as I know there’s no substitute.
The most ecological way of washing the dishes is with two tubs: one with soapy water for washing and another with plain water for rinsing. If your load is so big and/or dirty that you have to change the water, use the rinse water for washing the next load.
There are dishwasher soaps that are dye free, fragance free and biodegradable. Check your local health food store. Also, our grocery store now carries a biodegradable dishwasher soap as well.
Your suggestion for washing using two tubs is a good one. We use a similar technique when camping to conserve water. The rinse water does get soapy though, so its important to watch for that.
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