The case of the streaky, white-coated dishes

Dirty dishes go in. Dirty dishes come out. Wait. What?

For about a month now, Husband and I have been pondering why our dishes were coming out of the dishwasher with a white finish. They looked somewhat clean. But they were also white-coated. White-coated and streaked.

“Is the dishwasher on the fritz?” Husband asked. No. “Are we using new detergent?” No. “Are we using too much detergent?” No.

It was a real mystery. Until today. When the National Post gave us our answer.


Phosphates, or rather the lack thereof, have been turning everything white.

It turns out the Canadian government brought in new regulations last July, effectively banning phosphorous in most household dishwashing and laundry detergents, reports the National Post. The new rules prohibit the manufacture and import of these products containing phosphorus beyond 0.5 percent by weight.

That’s wonderful and all, but a heads up would’ve been grand. Why no mention of the regulation?

“It’s probably because a satisfactory replacement hasn’t yet been found,” said Bruce Cran, president of the Consumers Association of Canada, in the National Post article. “This is often the case with industry when things happen that aren’t necessarily to their advantage.”

The government supposedly passed the regulation to rein in phosphorous dumps, which have become a major problem for Canada’s waterways. While phosphorous softens water, reduces spotting and rusting, holds dirt and increases performance, it also acts as a plant fertilizer, creating an algae boon in waterways. The algae die, sink to the bottom and get eaten by bacteria. The bacteria use up all the oxygen and kill the fish. Also, the chemical causes massive green blob-like growths which can raise pH levels in water to toxic levels and block water intake pipes.

Not the prettiest of pictures.

Detergent makers have been trying for decades to come up with a suitable alternative to phosphorus with varying degrees of success, said the National Post. Tests conducted by Consumer Reports magazine in 2009 found that most phosphate-free detergents, including Great Value, sold by Wal-Mart Stores Inc., and Kirkland Signature, sold by Costco Wholesale Corp., “left our test dishes somewhat dirty.”

“Detergents without phosphates—which help clean but also boost algae growth in freshwater, threatening fish and other plants—tended to perform worst overall,” the magazine said.

Lewis Molot, an environmental scientist at York University, told the National Post that dirty dishes are a small price to pay for preventing the spread of phosphorous.

“Either the public pays huge amounts of money to remove the phosphorus at the end of the pipe, or it can choose the cheaper alternative to reduce the amount of phosphorus going into our sewers in the first place,” he said. “If I have to pay a little more for a greener detergent, even if it means it doesn’t clean the way it used to, I’ll put up with it.”

I don’t know. I kinda prefer my clean dishes.

You can read the full National Post article here.

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2 thoughts on “The case of the streaky, white-coated dishes

  1. Harvey says:

    Years ago a former girlfriend was working in a lab. She was doing a study on phosphates in laundry detergent and their effectiveness. One day she brought home this bottle with a powdery white substance. She said, “add a little of this when you do your laundry”. And I did. And my clothes were never cleaner.

    I suggest you do the same; add a little phosphates to you dishwasher and you will be well pleased.

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