Dish soap maker Procter & Gamble has an odd new ad campaign urging folks to "do it" every night by loading their dishwashers instead of wasting time and water on handwashing.
Persuading people to put crusty dishes in a machine that will clean them seems like it shouldn't require sexual innuendos crafted by Madison Avenue. Yet survey data show that nearly one in five Americans who own a dishwasher don't use it.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration periodically asks Americans about their energy use. In its 2001 survey, 16 percent of respondents said they used their dishwashers less than once a week. That number rose to 18 percent by 2009, and it was about 20 percent in the last two surveys, conducted in 2015 and 2020.
The increase in unused dishwashers is correlated with federal energy efficiency standards that have made newer models less effective. In the last 20 years, the U.S. Department of Energy has twice tightened those standards, which limit the amount of water and electricity that dishwashers use. Manufacturers have met those standards by building machines that recirculate less water over a longer wash cycle.
Data compiled by D.C.'s Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) show that average cycle times rose from just over an hour when the first standards were adopted in 1987 to nearly two-and-a-half hours as of 2018. In complaints collected by CEI, many consumers said the longer cycle times had led them to start handwashing dishes.
The regression in dishwasher use is a great lesson in unintended consequences. As Procter & Gamble points out in its "do it" campaign, handwashing uses far more water than machine washing. Environmental standards that discourage the use of machines undermine the original goals of those rules.
President Donald Trump understood that, even if his exact figures were a little off. "The dishwashers, they had a little problem," he said during his 2020 campaign. "They didn't give enough water, so people would run them 10 times, so they end up using more water. And the thing's no damn good."
The Trump administration briefly liberalized dishwasher standards, but the Biden administration quickly reimposed the old rules. Millions of Americans will now spill needless gallons of water down the drain by cleaning their dishes in the sink while a machine that could have done the work for them sits sadly handicapped and idle.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Use That Dishwasher".
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