This article is part of a Teja on the Horizon Circular Living series, which is about my experience transitioning to a more circular, low-waste life. This article describes my experience getting to zero waste dishwashing at home, and what that looks like.

For why a zero waste & circular lifestyle is important, watch the video below.

Where relevant, I include feedback from my friends, to give a sense for alternative choices people might make, and why. Obviously, people are different and live different lives. I think zero waste solutions advice need to consider this range, rather than assuming everybody should live the same way in order to become sustainable.

On the other hand, having the ability to go against the current linear mass consumerism and experiment with changes, does require a minimum quality of life. When you’re living in poverty, you have to take the options you can afford. So, the articles in this series will likely be more relevant to middle class people and above.

Additionally, I am based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Consequently, the options and financial comparisons provided in these articles will reflect value calculations that are true for Kuala Lumpur; a different result may be true for your location. I welcome comments that describe how the choices would be different at your location.

Zero waste dishwashing is in living memory

One day, my mother was over at my place. I had switched over to almost zero-waste dishwashing for a while by then, and she has gotten used to the setup when she visits. She looked at my dishwashing soap bar, and remarked, “You know, we used to wash dishes like this back in the day.”

“Really?” I was surprised. Not because people used to wash dishes with bar soaps. I mean, of course they would have. I was surprised because it wasn’t even that long ago. After all, when I was growing up, even my grandmother’s kitchen always had Axion dishwashing paste (which was kind of solid, come to think of it, albeit it came in a plastic container). But apparently, when my mother was a child, she had personally experienced zero waste dishwashing.

Dishwashing plastic liquid detergent bottles neatly arranged in rows, viewed from the top.
Photo 142321949 | Dishwashing Soap © Lucapbl | Dreamstime.com

What kind of dishwashing do I mean?

Zero waste dishwashing was one of the easiest changes in my zero waste journey. Maybe it’s because dishwashing hasn’t really changed that much conceptually, in Malaysia. We just changed the cleaning agent to pastes and liquid detergents, and most people also changed to use disposable foam sponges. But most households still wash dishes in the sink by hand, and then stack them on a dish drying rack to dry.

So for the purposes of this article, this is the dishwashing norm that I mean. This article is not going to address washing dishes with a dishwashing machine, other than a short section at the end.

Bamboo bristle brush with soap suds lying next to a dishwashing soap bar. Both rest on top of a stack of clean white plates and saucers.
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Options for zero waste dishwashing soap

When I first explored zero waste dishwashing several years ago, there was no such thing in Malaysia. Just like bamboo toothbrushes, I had to import it from abroad. A colleague of mine asked, wouldn’t it defeat the purpose, since the freight would make it less sustainable?

Indeed, he was right. But I was not trying to become more sustainable personally. I meant to be part of the effort to initiate change to the consumer system. So even though my earliest purchase was delivered from Korea, I hoped it would signal market demand. Market demand gives a reason to make the option available domestically.

And sure enough, I only had to make that purchase once. The purchase lasted me almost a whole year, and by then I could just buy my next batch from a home business selling on Shopee. At the time, she was the only option on the platform. Today, there’s already a lot of competition.

Meanwhile, around the same time bulk refill stores came into their own, and it became possible to get refills of liquid dishwashing detergent as well. So now, you can easily be zero waste for dishwashing soap in the Klang Valley, and probably other urban centres in the country soon.

1. Dishwashing soap bars

I think it was a good thing that my first foray was with that Korean brand (I can’t remember it now), even if it was expensive. Because it had instructions on the outside. My instinct was to wet the soap with a lot of water (it was my mother’s instinct too), but this uses up the soap faster and paradoxically makes the soap less effective at actually cleaning the greasy stuff. The instructions told me to just rub the dish scrubber over the soap, and use only a little bit of water.

I was sceptical. There didn’t seem to be anything on the scrubber – how could this work? But with just a bit of water added, the scrubber foamed surprisingly well, and the soap cleaned just as well as any liquid detergent I ever used before! There were times when I had to do the scrubbing twice, for the greasiest dishes, but then I had to do that before too. And when I got the hang of not allowing the soap to steep in residual water, the bar lasted for ages. I was converted.

Nowadays, I buy dishwashing soap about once a year from My Essential Oils on Shopee. They make their soap from used cooking oil, and deliver in re-used boxes. (I later give the empty boxes to The Hive for continued re-use). A 1kg order takes up hardly any space in my cupboard, and I don’t have to think about getting dishwashing soap for a year!

While they don’t foam as much as the Korean ones did, the order costs just RM30. This makes it competitive with concentrated dishwashing detergent in disposable plastic bottles, and it’s also a waste-to-product solution, making it doubly zero waste.

Stacks of dishwashing soap bars made from used cooking oil, viewed from the top inside a re-used cardboard box.
Dishwashing soap from used cooking oil

2. Dishwashing liquid refills

If you (or someone you live with) just can’t bring themselves to switch to dishwashing soap bars, you can also get dishwashing liquid detergent refills. I haven’t tried this myself. I assume it is just like conventional dishwashing except you refill the bottle. Maybe some might prefer this because of that. I have to admit that if you leave the dishwashing soap a tad too wet, you can end up with a solution at the bottom of your soap dish that has an odd smell. It’s still usable as soap, and I just decant it to clean with next time. But liquid detergent doesn’t come with that.

Dishwashing liquid refills cost between RM4.00 to RM16.80 per kg with KitaRefill, depending on what kind of detergent you want. If I compare this with similarly biodegradable, concentrated dishwashing detergent, it’s price competitive. Yes, you can get cheaper dishwashing detergent in massive 5kg bottles, and they seem like good value at around RM2 per kg. But even when I wasn’t zero waste, I personally found that they’re not as good as detergent. So it was not worth having to carry around the weight, if you ask me.

Options for zero waste dishwashing sponges

Of course, the detergent bottles aren’t the only source of waste from washing dishes. I have always been in households where you would use a disposable kitchen sponge for dishwashing. Generally, we’d change them every month or so, which is when they seemed to wear out. But it never quite felt sanitary to me. After all, they stayed damp most of the time, if not outright wet.Because they’re sponges, you can’t really clean them for “re-use”. But what was the alternative? Throw them out more frequently? You’d be buying sponges all the time! They really are meant to be used for a short while, and then thrown away.

Here are the options I considered, to escape the cycle of perpetually buying dishwashing sponges.

1. Loofahs

Natural loofahs will also wear out and have to be thrown out. However, they are at least biologically grown, and compostable. They’re kind of spongey, but the pores are much bigger. So if you drain them in between washes, they don’t get as icky as foam sponges. The larger pores also mean that you could soak them in boiling water every now and then to sanitise them. So you can use them for longer than you can (should?) a foam sponge.

Loofahs vary in coarseness. The soft ones are better for body exfoliation, but I prefer the coarser type for washing dishes. My current batch is from Common Market, who sells on Shopee. The loofahs are grown locally, and a fairly large one (~25cm) is RM8.00. Cut to size for your washing purposes.

You can also get loofahs in a more ‘processed’ form. These are loofahs which have been cut and sewn to make flat scrubbers. The Hive sells these for RM10. However, I personally feel they’re not as good at the job as just the raw loofah. And besides, I don’t know if they can be cleaned as well as a regular loofah, or if the fibres are too tight for a hot water clean to work.

Now, even though loofahs don’t seem expensive at all, I have to note that the foam disposable ones are extremely cheap. They can go down to 10-20 sen a piece, so it can seem like a good deal to buy them in bulk. After all, you can get more than 50 foam sponges for one loofah. And even if one loofah lasts a year, so would 50 sponges. But personally, I would choose the loofah because the price difference is not a lot for me. By doing so, my supermarket shopping size shrinks, due to eliminating one more item I would otherwise have to buy regularly. This makes walking to the supermarket for groceries much easier.

2. (Re-purposed) plastic net bag

Even though I have a loofah in the cupboard for future dishwashing, I must admit that it is not what I’m using right now. What I’m actually using right now, is a produce net bag from buying some fruit. It is a plastic net bag, which means that when it eventually deteriorates, it will become plastic waste. However, since I had it already, I just folded it into itself and made a plastic scrubby.

I know some households prefer the dishwashing net anyway vs the foam sponge, and I can see why. It does the job just as well, especially when paired with the dishwashing soap (the foam sponge is not good with bar soap). Since the holes are actually fairly large (and I can unwind them any time I want), I can also wash the net and soak it in hot water for regular cleaning. And since I had done this once before until the net started breaking apart, I know how long this scrubber would last – easily a couple of years.

So, considering it costs nothing, I think if you’re tight on cash you might as well get onions or fruits in a net bag one day, and just use the net bag for dishwashing instead of buying 50 foam sponges! It’s less money, and far, far less plastic waste too.

Yellow dishwashing net
ID  221678812 © Muhammad Safuan Bin NordinDreamstime.com

3. Compostable sponges

I have been an environmentalist for a long time. So I’ve succumbed to buying the ‘incrementally less harmful’ solutions from before zero waste became a legit societal movement. One of these products is the foam sponge, but made from cellulose or other biodegradable material.

If there is some reason why you have to have foam sponges, then I guess cellulose foam sponges are at least biodegradable. However, they’re typically a lot more expensive than the plastic version, at least 10x the price. And unlike the loofahs, you still have to replace these sponges at the same frequency as the conventional sponges, if only for hygiene reasons. I can’t think of any reason why I’d go back to these. I only chose these because I was just so used to the foam sponge paradigm to make more radical changes. However, after finally making the change, I highly recommend just shifting the habit entirely, and use one of the other two options above instead.

Options for zero waste pot scrubbers

Like most people, I don’t only use dishwashing sponges. You also need a rougher scrubber or scouring pad at hand, for scouring stubborn cooking residue from pots and pans. In my past non-zero waste life, I normally relied on the two-layer sponges, where the back of the sponge is the scouring side. After becoming zero waste, I found that loofahs and net scrubbers are typically not stiff enough to serve this purpose. Even the flat scrubber version doesn’t really scour well, because the loofah fibres themselves are too soft.

Of course, you can soak the pots and then scrub them later, and you can also help yourself by buying non-stick cookware so that you won’t need to scour. (In fact, don’t use scourers on non-stick cookware!) But I still have a rice cooker and a wok, and unfortunately I’m rather impatient. If you use cast iron, stainless steel, etc. you probably use a scourer too.

Note: If you do opt for non-stick cookware, ceramic non-stick is more suitable for Asian cooking which often involves high heat vs Teflon. I have used both personally, and understand why someone might choose Teflon. But now that I can afford any cookware I want, I prefer ceramic over Teflon for non-stick coatings. This is not just because of concerns on the PTFE coating leaching during cooking. I’m also taking into consideration the relative environmental impact during manufacturing of the cookware, and then the implications of disposing the cookware later.

1. Wire scrubbers

My first choice was the wire scrubber, which was a default a generation ago. It wasn’t normal for me, because when you’re buying foam sponge anyway, you have a scouring pad on the back and don’t really need the wire scrubber. However, since I ditched the foam sponge, I thought the logical option is to return to the wire scrubber.

I kind of assumed that because it’s metal, it would last for ages. And maybe the good quality ones do. But I quickly discovered that wire scrubbers eventually ‘shed’ wire bits. I suppose the bits are at least metal, and could return into some kind of natural cycle. But I now feel like it’s a waste of metal. I mean, IMO the whole point of using metal things is if you want them to last indefinitely.

I’ve been testing out bio-based alternatives now that my wire ball is less than half its original size. But in writing this article I notice that the Chinese have come up with different kinds of wire scourers and even a wire dishrag. The prices vary a lot for the traditional wire balls too, ranging from RM0.30 to RM30! So maybe if I had bought a pricier product, this would have been OG quality and would last indefinitely.

Photo 219238450 | Dish Scrubber © Norgal | Dreamstime.com

2. Natural bristle brushes

You can either try to get a scourer that lasts close to forever, or you can embrace its limited lifespan by choosing a material that matches that. One option that frequently features in zero waste communities is the bristle brush. The handle is usually either bamboo or wood, and the bristles may be coconut fibre, hemp, or sisal. The key feature is, of course, that it’s biodegradable and the materials are renewable.

There are various versions of this brush, but generally they are either fixed to a long handle, or just a wooden top handle. Which ones you prefer depends on your dishwashing preferences, I suppose. Personally, I didn’t like the handle and would rather just grasp the brush directly. I also found the wire that typically attaches the brush head to the handle to be fairly difficult to manage, so changing the brush head is just too difficult.

However, either way, the most important part of choosing a brush is whether the wooden handle is treated. This is because the brush will often be damp. If the wooden part is not treated, it can get mouldy, which I learned by experience. By contrast, my bottle brush which also has a wooden handle did not get mouldy despite being damp more often, because the wood had been treated.

This type of brush is typically about RM10, give or take. By contrast, if you prefer to buy the conventional scouring pads separately (rather than at the back of the foam sponge), they are about RM1. Although I suppose the brush would last considerably longer than 10 scouring pads, provided the handle doesn’t get mouldy.

3. Coconut brush

Coconut fibre is a common biodegradable alternative to conventional scouring pads. Some versions of the biodegradable cellulose foam sponges mentioned above have a scouring side to mimic the conventional sponge/scourer product. This scouring side is usually made from coconut fibre. As I recall, I found that the coconut scouring pad isn’t as effective as the conventional product. I think it functions about as well as the loofah scrubbing pads. Not bad, but not great either.

However, that’s not the coconut brush I’m talking about in this section. The traditional ‘horseshoe’ coconut brush seems to be making a comeback. There are now versions sized for dish scrubbing and re-invented as bottle brushes. I have the latter to better clean out my tall juice jug, and it seems to hold up better than the plastic one I had before it.

I haven’t tried the coconut brush for dishwashing. There really isn’t a reason for this other than childhood association. You see, I’m old enough to remember when the coconut brush was in regular use. But back then, it was exclusively a toilet brush. Maybe if you’re young enough that you never knew this association, you’d be perfectly fine with trying this out as a pot scrubber. Going as low as RM1.50, it is pretty comparable to the conventional scouring pad, and may even be cheaper if it lasts longer. If you use this brush, do comment below and tell me how it compares.

Photo 324378873 | Dish Scrubber © Wisely W | Dreamstime.com

Zero waste drying racks

Finally, let’s not forget about after the dishwashing. There is a great variety of dish drying racks on the market. However, in the context of being a zero waste consumer, the important part is the material sustainability. Again, you can go two ways with this. Either you want a drying rack set that lasts indefinitely, or you don’t expect that.

The key is to pick the right material and quality for the outcome you want. If you don’t expect to keep the drying rack indefinitely, then pick a material that’s renewable, preferably locally so. Don’t pick a metal drying rack of such poor quality that the metal is wasted as an effectively disposable product. As for plastic, in theory you could make an indefinitely lasting product with plastic, but it needs to be really good quality plastic.

My original drying rack was a pine folding rack, mainly because I just needed to get the kitchen set up quickly. So I went with cheap but renewable. It lasted a reasonably long time, but eventually started to get mouldy. My current drying rack was dug out from my mother’s kitchen cabinet stash. Fortunately, it is steel. There are a couple of spots where it might rust, but with regular cleaning it’s not a problem. It’s better than plastic coated metal, as the plastic coating invariably chips off. I shouldn’t need to think about getting a new one for years.

Photo by Tracey Hocking on Unsplash

Water saving dishwashing tips

I first realised that Asian hand washing of dishes is different from European, when I was studying abroad. There, I learned that the ‘water saving’ version of hand washing dishes still involves filling the whole sink with water, washing the lot, and then filling another sink with water for the rinse (or not rinsing at all). Although, maybe this is just true for northern Europeans, and not southern Europeans.

Of course, this method is also used in Asia, for example at restaurants or village feasts, when you’re washing dishes for a lot of people at once. But it’s not how households usually do it. For starters, we often cook with a wok, and one of those would fill the whole sink by itself! And secondly, a lot of homes just don’t have deep enough sinks to do the ‘fill sink with water’ method.

Instead, daily dishwashing in Asian homes typically means a light rinse of the dirty dishes. Some people like to use the detergent directly on the scrubber, others prefer to dilute it into a solution and then use that. Each dish is then washed singly, without being submerged in a sink of water. While this is going on, the tap is off, at least in tropical Asia, because there’s no temptation to let it run to keep hot water flowing. (We don’t need to heat the water.) Then, the dishes are rinsed singly from the tap.

So water saving habits should be viewed from this context.

Water saving sink taps

Since most of the water use in hand washing dishes happens during tap rinsing, the best way to make this more efficient is to install a water saving tap. You don’t actually need a lot of water to achieve the cleaning outcome, it just needs to be well distributed. So aerators and faucet heads that spread the water into a spray give a better sense of cleaning, while using less water than basic taps.

There are a range of solutions to achieve this effect, from the least sophisticated to full designs. But even the latter is quite affordable nowadays. So if you’re not totally strapped for cash, invest in a good faucet head. I recommend a flexible neck for the kitchen sink while you’re at it.

Secondly, pick tap handles that do not need to be twisted. Maybe this is so obvious that I don’t know if it even needs to be said anymore. After all, almost all tap options nowadays no longer use the old twist handle. But in case the twist handle is not yet obsolete where you are, the reason is this. When it’s easy to turn the tap on and off, you can easily release just enough water for wetting purposes. Whereas twisting takes more time and results in water flowing without being used. This is fine if the intention is to fill the sink, but wasteful if you meant to use it for washing and rinsing.

This is especially handy if you’re using a dishwashing soap bar. You need just a little bit of wetting, and too much water makes the soap feel ineffective. If my tap were the twist handle type, I think it would make the dishwashing soap more annoying to use. I might then prefer detergent refills.

Does a dishwashing machine save water?

Finally, you could also consider the dishwashing machine. When I was married and in the UK house, we did have this machine. It is a convenient machine to have, especially in a place where hand washing (by either method) is unpleasant because the tap water is so cold, and you often had to operate two taps for hot and cold water rather than have a mixer tap.

By all accounts, using a modern dishwashing machine uses less water than hand washing. Now, as far as I can tell, all such comparisons invariably assume ‘hand washing’ means you’re filling the sink and then replacing the water by re-filling the sink. So the estimate is that hand washing would use a whopping 100 litres of water on average. I’m not sure if I’ve ever used that much water for washing up after a meal. My entire month’s water usage is rarely more than 4 cubic metres, and surely half of that can’t just be due to washing dishes.

Still, given that a dishwashing machine uses just 13 litres for a full load, it’s probably still water saving. And of course, if you live in a place where you need to heat water to wash dishes, then the machine would be significantly energy saving as well. Getting a dishwashing machine here is about RM1000.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

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US style corporate management promotes senior managers who see staff in terms of their job grade, like parts in a machine. So if two people happen to be in the same job grade, therefore they must be interchangeable.

As a kind of LOTR fan, I have to nitpick the phrasing and clarify that the reason why the One Ring was the least dangerous with a hobbit, is because hobbits just want to live life and get along, ie hobbits aren’t tempted to “rule them all”.

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