I clean green but the dishes don't gleam!

I use nonpolluting products wherever I can -- but this brand-name commercial stuff really makes plates and glasses sparkle!

Published February 13, 2007 11:28AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

On Christmas Eve, I ran out of good-for-the-planet, all-natural, nontoxic, not-tested-on-animals dishwasher detergent. I was getting ready to cook up a storm, and all the stores around here were closed (and would be closed for 36 more hours) except for the local minimart. Since it of course didn't sell any kind of hippie-friendly products, I just randomly grabbed a name-brand bottle and headed home.

Over the following days, I noticed something -- namely, that my dishes were getting clean. Really clean. Sparkling, like-new clean. The kind of clean that makes people send those effusive letters to soap companies. I had never really wondered why my silverware always had a dull look, or why each load of dishes always had items that needed further hand-washing -- until they didn't anymore. Giddy with power, I stopped hand-washing and presoaking, and still there were no problems. However, I did notice that the chlorine smell from the dishwasher was quite intense, and I needed to vacate the kitchen when I started a load.

Last week, the bottle ran out, and I switched back to my "preferred" brand -- a brand that I'd found after much searching to be the best of the "natural" products. Almost overnight, the dishwashing quality decreased tremendously. It was as if someone had snuck into the apartment, damaged the dishwasher so it only performed at half strength and put an additive into the water that changed the pH level.

My quandary is this: I try to live a good life in regard to the planet. I recycle and compost religiously, am vegan and try to cook with locally grown and organic ingredients, take public transportation and car-share instead of owning a car, and so on. I'm fortunate to be in a position to afford more expensive "natural" products and to live in an area where these products are available. However, at what point do I draw the line? How do I enjoy life and not walk around in a (vegan) hair shirt while still attempting to lessen my impact on the planet?

I fear the slippery slope of compromise, that I've already made so many concessions to living in a modern world that it's easy to just keep making the more personally convenient choice, until one day I'll be a 50-year-old yuppie driving my Hummer from my McMansion to a party three blocks over and talking about "my silly younger self who thought she could change the world. Hey, aren't these chicken wings great? So anyway, after my second mastectomy ..."

I fear that I'm stressing about all of this too much, and that unless I'm living off the grid out in the woods I'm soaking up environmental contamination and contributing to global warming and pollution and all the rest just by being an American, and that a few product choices here and there really won't cause that much of an impact to either the environment or my health -- won't make any impact at all, in fact, except to the bottom line of those smaller product companies that rely on customers like me. (But why, oh why, can't they make a better product?)

Mostly, I'm afraid that I might be just one insignificant person, and that nothing I do makes a difference. The planet will go to hell (or not), I'll suffer and die early (or not), and I can't do much about it. All my stress -- not to mention the time and money spent -- will have been for nothing.

Any guidance (or even just sympathy) would be appreciated.

It's Not Easy Being Green

Dear It's Not Easy Being Green,

I have sympathy. You're certainly not alone in your plight. But you are sort of alone in your kitchen. So here is how I think about it:

Say you were an evil anti-ecologist who wanted to pollute the world. So you burned a piece of paper in your room. Aha! World, look what I have done! I have polluted you! Now thousands will die!

That's pretty feeble. You're not having any effect. But what if you gathered 1,000 similarly evil anti-ecologists around you and you all went out to the Civic Center and burned pieces of paper. Now look, world, look what we're doing! Surely now thousands will die! And the Earth will cough! Ha!

Even that is pretty lame. But it has the potential of influencing the behavior of others, and perhaps catching on. It's a behavior that meets your personal goal of trying to pollute the world and kill thousands but also has the potential of being replicated so that it might have an impact eventually. Others who share your dream might join in ...

Sheesh. Let's not overdo the cute conceit.

I spent the morning reading all kinds of interesting things, which I append at the bottom after this piece. Just interesting, thought-provoking links that do not necessarily take the mainstream view, which I like, as it seems to get my phlegmatic blood coursing slightly faster through my sclerotic, highly pressurized tubes.

Our attitude toward the Earth can be deeply personal and spiritual. But the point I want to make is that if you care about saving the environment then you have to take actions that will have some physical consequence.

The amount of stress you're putting into this makes me think that you could probably really do some good in the world if you turned to movements that have a snowball's chance in hell of influencing government and industry.

So my advice to you is: Pick an issue, a big, important issue with an identifiable solution and potentially catastrophic consequences. Don't let me influence you -- but I'm thinking of one issue in particular, which has to do with reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. It's a big issue, it's in all the papers, people know about it, governments are concerned, and if something isn't done maybe we will all die horrible deaths.

That all makes for a good issue.

So work on it. Do some good. And meanwhile, use whatever dishwasher detergent you want.

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Links I found while rummaging:

  • Recipe for homemade dishwasher detergent.
  • Another recipe for homemade dishwasher detergent, plus various other helpful household hints.
  • Wikipedia on dishwasher detergent.
  • Wikipedia on dishwashers and the environment.
  • Proctor & Gamble on the use of nonylphenol and nonylphenol ethoxylates.
  • "Is Recycling Worthwhile?" April 23, 1997, by Owen Nichols.
  • Jack Hitt in Harper's on "The Recycling Religion."
  • Rob Lyons in Spiked on recycling: "In the absence of an economic incentive, governments' interest appears to be in using environmental issues as a kind of secular religion: weekly worship at the bottle bank. With traditional forms of allegiance like the church, trade unions and the monarchy receiving diminishing respect, new ways of creating a sense of common purpose are needed."
  • See "Section 3. Ecomysticism," in this treatise.
  • Kenan Malik, author of "Man, Beast and Zombie," in "The Science We Like and the Science We Don't," writes: "There are few things more dispiriting than turning science into faith. Faith disempowers humans, snatching from their hands the responsibility for their fate. It sets up limits to human actions and possibilities. Making a faith of science is particularly invidious as it turns the party of reason into the high priests of myth, transmuting an open-ended, quizzical view of the world, into a narrow, closed dogma. It is this about which we should be truly worried."
  • Malik again, in a review of E.O. Wilson's "The Future of Life," warns against "religion disguised as ecology."
  • Also of interest, from the Ludwig von Mises Institute: "Recycling: What a Waste!" "Who reaps the real psychic reward from recycling? The statist do-gooder and the obsessed conservationist. Since recycling is now a statist goal, the do-gooders and greens force the cost of recycling on the unsuspecting masses by selling recycling as a pseudo-spiritual activity. In addition to these beneficiaries, there are those who have not considered the full costs of recycling, but their psychic benefit is more ephemeral than real. The other winners are the companies that do the collecting and process the materials, an industry that is sustained by mandates at the local level."
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