How to Wash Dishes Without Wasting Water

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Water is precious. Save water with these tips on how to wash dishes without wasting water.

Wash dishes without wasting water

Dishwasher v hand washing, which uses less water? Which option is more eco-friendly?

While you and I were getting on with our everyday work of cooking and cleaning, the University of Bonn in Germany conducted a study to answer this question conclusively and for good.

The answer?

It depends.

The study found, on average, washing a load of dishes by hand (12 place settings), used about 103 litres of water (and an average of 2.5Wh of energy for hot water heating).

How each participant’s hand-washed made all the difference. Some washers used as little as 30 litres of water, while others used as much as 450 litres!

Water consumption, technique, competency and cleanliness varied widely between the participants.

(There’s an Instagram account about satisfying cleaning, and a lot of people wash their dishes under a continuous stream of running water.)

However, in comparison, a dishwasher (of the mechanical variety) uses between 15 and 30 litres of water per load (and 1 – 2kWh of energy), depending on its efficiency [source].

Even the most efficient hand washer in the study isn’t as efficient as a good dishwasher.

So is hand washing dishes a thing of the past?

We washed dishes by hand for 35 years. But a couple of years ago, we purchased a dishwasher, and while I’m not convinced it uses less water than I do (that would be my availability bias at play), it certainly makes life easier. 

But there’s still the water issue.

And water security is an important issue. Australia has had two severe droughts already this century and it’s predicted to get worse.

Despite what the study says, you don’t need a lot of water to hand wash the dishes.

In fact, I think hand washers can do just as well or better than 15 litres a load.

Your average sink holds around 20 litres of water. Wash up in a half-full sink, and you’re only using around 10 litres of water. Add a little extra water for rinsing, and you can do the dishes in 12 litres of water or less.

If you wash up twice a day, that’s still only 22 litres of water, comparable to a standard dishwasher.

Here are some tips on saving water while getting your dishes sparkling clean.

How to Wash Dishes By Hand Using Minimal Water

When I was a kid, dishwashing was a skill we learned in Brownies at camp, where there was only tank water, and we had to wash up in basins. If you’re on tank water, you’ll be even more aware than I am how important saving water is.

These steps are the ones that I’ve found to be most water-efficient when it comes to hand-washing dishes.

1. Scrape Plates with a Silicone Spatula Before Food has a Chance to Dry

A silicone spatula is one of your best frugal friends in the kitchen. Scrape out the last of the jam from the jar, the last of the mashed potato from the pot, the last little bit of pancake batter (mmm, crispy dribbly bits) and use it to scrape the plates clean after meals.

To be honest, I’ve always been one to finish every last morsel of food on the plate (and there may be a genetic trait of secret plate-licking passed down from mother to daughter).

But the kids don’t always finish everything they are given. And hubby has the habit of always leaving something on his plate. One pea. One little bit of chicken. A wodge of mash left on the fork…

Scrape it off before it turns crusty and cements on, and you’ll make dishwashing sooo much easier. 

If the food on your plates goes crusty dry before you get a chance to tend to them, soak them for a minute or two in pre-rinse water…

2. Pre-rinse Dishes in a Couple of Centimetres of Water

Dishes need clean water to get cleaned properly, so it’s a good idea to pre-rinse dishes first.

You can save water by putting a tiny amount of hot water in the sink or basin, just a few centimetres, and giving the dishes a swish with the dish brush to scrub off any remaining food.

This water may get mucky by the end of the rinse, but as this is only the pre-rinse stage, that’s ok.

As with the washing up, rinse the cleanest stuff first.

If you use a basin or pot instead of the sink, you can pour this water out onto the garden.

3. Pre-soak Cookware for Stubborn Stains

While this isn’t strictly about saving water, it does save labour: cooked-on food is a pain to wash off.

Make it easy by sprinkling the bottom of your baking pan or fry pan with a little washing soda (same as is in the homemade laundry soap) and then pour a little hot water over – just enough to cover the bottom. Leave to soak overnight.

The next morning, give the pan a quick once-over with a dish brush, pour the dirty water out, and you’re ready to wash the pan – without all the scrubbing – with your next load of dishes.

4. Don’t Fill the Sink to Wash the Dishes

All you need to start washing the dishes is a couple of centimetres of hot water in the bottom of the sink and a few suds. The hotter the water, the better. Wear gloves so you can just use straight hot water—this will get your dishes sparkling. 

While you wait for the tap water to get hot, don’t let it run down the sink! Save it in a pot or jug and use it for drinking, cooking, or rinsing the dishes. Cool it in the fridge for drinking.

Also, it helps to use just enough suds to clean the dishes. Too many suds means you need more water to rinse the dishes. 

Wash the clean and small stuff first, and then…

4. Rinse with Hot Water in the Same Sink

Rinse the soap suds off with hot water directly into the sink or basin you’re using to wash the dishes.

That way, by the time you get to the pots and larger items, you will have half a sink of water instead of a few centimetres, plenty of water for the larger items.

Alternatively, if you have a double-bowl sink, you can put a little water in the second bowl and use that to dip the dishes in to rinse.

Or, and this is how my mum does it, after you have finished, pour a jug full of water (the one you saved above) over the dish drainer to rinse the suds off all the dishes at once.

5. Tip the Washing Up Water onto the Garden

If you’ve used a large soup pot or basin to wash your dishes in, you can tip the water out onto the garden or lawn. This keeps your plants alive without hose watering, which is often banned during water restrictions. 

If you use grey water in the garden, be sure to choose a greywater-safe dishwashing detergent. It’s best not to use greywater on fruit, vegetables, and other foods you plan to eat.  

5. Drip Dry

Ok, drip-drying dishes has nothing to do with saving water but everything to do with saving time!

While it’s possible to use as little or less water as a dishwasher when hand washing dishes, there’s no getting around the fact that it does take more time.

At least by drip-drying dishes on a dish rack, you’re not doing any more work than you have to.

Better yet, of course, is to delegate the job of washing the dishes entirely.

By the way, if you have a dishwasher, save power by turning off the dry setting and letting your dishes drip dry in the dishwasher. Just crack the door open for airflow.

Call it cognitive bias, but despite the study, I’m still not comfortable with the claim that dishwashers are more eco-friendly than hand washing, although we do use one and appreciate the labour-saving aspect of a dishwasher.

They may be more water-efficient if you don’t take steps to minimise water when washing. But a few frugal strategies will ensure you keep dishwashing water to a minimum.

What are your tips and tricks for washing dishes without wasting water? Share them in the comments below.

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  1. No dishwasher here either although sometimes I wish I had one. Over my life time I think I have kept at least 3 dishwashers out of landfill. These things do not last long and people seem to be replacing often. This is motivation enough not to buy one. I was taught to hand wash in my home economics class at high school. My approach follows the Brownie Guides approach you were taught. It irritates me to no end when I watch my DH fill the sink to the brim and when he seems to have no order to doing the job. I will be showing him your post!

    1. Melissa Goodwin says:

      Sometimes I wish I had one too! Er, hope I’m not going to further dishes discord :).

  2. Can I ask? Have you ever used a dishwasher on a regular basis?

    Sometimes we have gone without ours and I can honestly tell you, that hand washing uses way more water to wash the same qty of dishes as the dishwasher. That is with me being careful and only filling the sink to what we need to. We are on tank water, so have to careful with what we use.

    I am of the opinion that unless you have done both (hand washed and used a dishwasher) for a decent length of time, then you can’t really comment on either (also saying that those who have only every used dishwasher shouldn’t really comment on handwashing ;) ). Even my MIL, who has been Miss Anti Dishwasher for years, has been coming around to them, when she has seen how much they can do and how clean some dishes can get.

    1. Melissa Goodwin says:

      Hi Astrid,

      Glad to hear the other side of the argument.

      I’ve lived in rental properties in the past that have had dishwashers. But I haven’t used one for several years now. The consensus is certainly that dishwashers use less water, particularly the more recent ones. I just think hand washing has an undeserved bad wrap of late.

    2. Yes, but you cannot deny they wreck your good stuff. So many times when I have visited my daughter in law or as you would call her DIL, she says to me “Don’t put that in there or it will ruin it.” I look at the faded cups, plates. knife handles, pot handles and many other things and have come to the conclusion, unless you want to keep updating all your cutlery, dinnerware and pots, forget it. They are great when you are tired and have guests, but really, everyday. Sorry, not for me.

      1. Melissa Goodwin says:

        They do tend to do that :(.

    3. Vivien Counsell Mitchell says:

      Having had a dishwasher for many years, AND hand-washed for another ‘many years’ too, I can say with certainty that I can, without question, hand-wash a load with less water than a dishwater.

      We live in a relatively remote area, and use tank water and a septic tank so keeping grease to a minimum is essential. I use a technique similar to the one based on the Japanese bathing principle in which you don’t get into the bath until you are already clean.

      We have a double sink. I leave water in one sink from the previous wash, that I use whenever I’m cooking or cleaning up after a meal. I scrape debris off the plate (compost usually), then holding the plate/pot etc over the empty sink use a brush and dirty water from the other sink to ‘wash’ the dish as clean as possible. (Very greasy pans get wiped out with newspaper first.) I then stack everything, for proper washing once I have enough to make it worth while (usually once a day). When ready, I empty the bowl of dirty water (or put it on the garden if we’re in a drought) and put just enough hot water in the bowl (solar water heater) to give the already fairly clean glasses/dishes a proper wash. I very lightly rinse over the washing water (as above), so that by the time I’m washing greasier pots/pans there’s more water. I use a washing up bowl, because this way I can run cold water till the hot comes through and this either waters plants or goes into the dogs’ water bowl. All the dishes/cutlery/pots/pans get a very small rinse to remove any soap film but this uses very little water, and will be recycled for rinsing the next wash. I can wash a fairly large load of dishes etc in no more than 10 litres of water, and they are really clean. I’m not even tempted to go back to a dishwasher.

      1. Melissa Goodwin says:

        Hi Vivien,

        Thank you for sharing how you wash dishes. It sounds super-efficient and water saving. Essential if you’re on tank water or have water restrictions, but something we should all be doing to conserve as much water as possible, especially at this time with the bushfires. Every bit helps.

        Thanks again.

  3. I use 2 liters per day max. All my water in both my sinks is collected by well fitted plastic containers, one on the left for rinsing, one on the right for washing
    – The one on the right collects water throughout the day from rinsing hands, fruit, veg, the odd glass or mug, etc. I put the dirty dishes into it to soak throughout the day, and when I have the time or inclination, I wash them with a soapy cloth (no suds in this method, unless there are a lot of dishes) If I have to soak a big saucepan, I pour this water into it instead of tap water. When the washing plastic container on the right is full, I take it to the garden or pour it down the sink if it is too dirty.
    – I rinse the dishes under a slow flow of tap water in the left plastic container. When the washing plastic container on the right is emptied, I pour the collected rinsing water into it to start the whole process again
    – So on average, I poor about 2 liters of water per day down the drain.
    Needless to say, I use an environmentally friendly washing product so the water I poor into the garden does not damage the plants. Which brings me to the point that dishwashing products tend to be very toxic, adding to the pollution accumulated by discarded dishwashers.

    1. Melissa Goodwin says:

      That’s a great system Yvonne, thank you for sharing it! What dishwash do you use?

  4. I’ve always handwashed and I do that by filling the sink with all the dirty dishes first , plates, cups, glasses, cutlery. Add dishwashing liquid, and fill it up with hot water. I then like to let them sit there while I relax or do something else. Pots that are likely to become a problem if their food remnants dry out, are also partly filled with a little hot water and put aside.

    When I come back a few hours later, the dishes are practically clean and so I just give them a quick wipe and rinse with water, and they are done. I then use the remaining water in the sink to deal with the pots. Done.

    I’ve never wanted a dishwasher, except when we have visitors over , and I’m faced with a mountain of dishes. Therefore, I will get one soon :), though it is not likely that I will use it on a daily basis.

  5. I prefer to do dishes by hand because it is less damaging. Flat ware gets scratched, along with glasses and dishes, sometimes the soaps (I have tried them all) make some colors fade. I had a set of black-handled stainless flatware that i had to replace because they became bleached out from Cascade. Also I have some vintage stuff that I would not dare put in the dishwasher. So even though I have a dishwasher in my kitchen I rarely use it.

  6. Alison Venugoban says:

    Just read this and couldn’t believe how much water a dishwasher uses! I have never used one, and tonight I worked out that I use 3 litres of water AT MOST to completely clean my dishes.
    I was brought up on a farm in the Australian Outback – water was treated as more valuable than gold, especially our limited drinking water from a rain tank. I kept to my frugal ways when I moved to the city, and I still shudder when I see people wasting water by washing their car on the driveway, for example.

    1. Melissa Goodwin says:

      I hear you. It’s amazing how much water we waste! I think soon we will all (hopefully) be treating water like gold. Thanks for your comment. :)

  7. Hi Melissa I too wash my dishes by hand. I wash once a day and do what others do , also rinse in bowls. I only use a max of 10 litres , most times less. All of the water is for plants etc. I also shampoo my hair over laundry sink then bucket it out for a flush in the toilet. Likewise in the shower I have a bucket and use that for a toilet flush. I am going to buy your book because I am extremely budget conscious out of necessity. I enjoy reading the comments. ????????

    1. Melissa Goodwin says:

      Hi Kay, thanks for your comment.

      It’s great to hear your water-saving ways. We also have a bucket in the shower to reuse water. We have purchased a dishwasher since writing this article; it uses 10 litres too. While I love the convenience, I can’t collect the water and reuse it like you can when you hand wash!

  8. Thank you so much for writing this! I was looking for a step by step guide, because I have a single compartment sink and no dishwasher. Thank you thank you!

  9. If only washing a few items use a spay bottles with water detergent to spray the items,rub the item with your hands or a disk cloth, then use a spray bottle with water only to rinse the items. For one plate knife and fork you van use less than 20 ml of water.

  10. Having had a dishwasher in the past in our apartment, I’m not a fan. Maybe it was worn out? Maybe a cheapie just so management could say the apartments “have dishwashers”? I’m not sure. What I am sure of is most of the time one or more dishes would still be dirty in spite of scraping & rinsing unless we practically washed them by hand first.

    We have a jar sitting on the back corner of the sink for flatware. We fill it with soapy water and flatware goes in it throughout the day, by the time we wash at night, it’s had a good soak. Glasses & cups get a quick rinse with a splash of water after they’ve been used (we also have a “one water glass” rule where each person has one glass for water they use throughout the day which reduces how many glasses we have overall). For plates, they soak in a minimal amount of water then I dip the washcloth in the water and put a bit of soap on it and wash them then put them in the rinse side. I turn the water on to just more than a drizzle and rinse them (flatware I rinse multiple at once rather than each individual item).

    1. Hi Monica, some great tips, thanks. I stick our flatware in my morning tea cup to soak :)