Doing the dishes

The complexity of sustainable development

Doing the dishes

Yesterday, our dishwasher refused to fulfil his main task: cleaning the dishes. It forced me (and my roommates), to do the dishes by hand. Although it can be an entertaining activity to wash the dishes while singing along with Pitbull (babababababababy I'm on fire), we rather have a functioning dishwasher.


Several possibilities arise to handle this issue. The easiest option is to do nothing at all. Every evening we should gather for a dishwashing session of at least 20 minutes. Maybe one minor action is required, that is getting rid of the broken dishwasher. The second option is also a relatively easy option (apart from the dragging), but there is slightly more luxury involved: buying a new dishwasher. The third and more advanced option is to try to repair the dishwasher. The word 'try' is used because no success is guaranteed with a dorm that consists out of five ladies. As TU Delft students, also known as 'fietsenmakers', it is expected that we have some basic repair knowledge. Therefore, the challenge of repairing the dishwasher is accepted. After watching dozens of ''how to's'' on Youtube, dismounting and assembling again, we came to the conclusion that we couldn't fix the problem ourselves.


The dishwashing issue set me thinking about the sustainability of dishwashing. I always assumed that a dishwasher is more environmental friendly because it uses only a small amount of water. A quick research on the Internet taught me that the carbon footprint of a dishwasher on 55 degrees (770 g CO2) is sufficiently smaller than washing by hand with extravagant use of hot water (8.000 g CO2) (Berners-Lee, 2010). However, cleaning the dishes not too hot and using water sparingly results in an emission of 540 g CO2, which is smaller than the electronic competitor. The temperature of water has thus a major effect, but the amount of water (in relation to the dishes) has also a significant influence. Other aspects that influence the sustainability (from a 3P perspective) are the type and amount of soap, soaking or not, a hot fill connection and its heater, cleaning of the machine, purchase price, time etc. Concluding, what is the most sustainable way of doing the dishes? The answer to this question is: it depends.


It depends on the all the size of the household, it depends on the way the water is heated, it depends on all the aspects mentioned in the previous paragraph and more. Besides, it also depends on the way sustainability is measured. The amount of CO2 emitted gives an indication of the sustainability but ignores the effect of a broken machine (waste material). I am not sure whether there is only one right answer to this question. From different perspectives, different answers are correct. This results in the fact that sustainability is a complex and broad problem. During the course Engineering for Sustainable Development, I expect to get a greater understanding of sustainable development and it related systems. Maybe it leads eventually to the (or my) answer on the question. Unfortunately, for the time being I am forced to do the dishes by hand.


Berners-Lee, M. (2010). How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything . London: Profile Books LTD.

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