Chemicals For Cleaning

A recent letter to the editor of the American Chemical Society’s house organ, Chemical and Engineering News (Feb 21, 2011, p. 5) reminded me of something I used to urge widely. Discussing dishwasher compounds, he wrote:

“… I got to thinking about the use of polymers and other substitutes for phosphates that aid in the washing process but do not have complete biodegradability in the water reclamation process.  Although these are a substitute for phosphates … it seems to me that all this whining and lambasting manufacturers for spots on stemware smacks of a persistent sense of entitlement now firmly hard-coded in the American consumer’s DNA.

I suggest that those who couldn’t possibly live without their dishwashers return to using good old soap and hot water as our … grandparents did. Doing the dishes by hand after a meal is quick, a good way to spend quality time with a spouse, uses less water and fossil fuel energy than automated dishwashing, and doesn’t require the use of chemical cocktails to get clean and spot-free dishes. … the overall reduction to one’s carbon footprint is greater than all the effort of trying to find a truly green automatic dishwasher product.

Better living doesn’t necessarily come from modern chemistry.”

I realized long ago that a lot of chemical usage is for reasons that are superficial, or trivial or lazy. Often this applies to chemical cleaning. There is much cleaning, such as grease removal or rust removal that can be done just as easily, or more cheaply, by the use of very hot water spray or a scraper or wire brush. Creating a bath of expensive chemicals for dipping can be no more than a lazy way to avoid some labor. However, Palmer’s Dictum reads: whenever a mechanical method can be used instead of a chemical method, the mechanical method is usually preferable, largely because expensive and energy consuming chemicals do not have to be created and then diluted, contaminated chemicals do not have to be dumped somewhere.

Often the first recommendation for being green is to reduce usage. Using a bit less is not always the best you can do. Sometimes you can stop using chemicals entirely.

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