Confessions of a Soap Sample Boy

Confessions of a Soap Sample Boy

Item: People are driving to Idaho to buy dish soap banned from stores in Spokane. How you can have cleaner dishes, make better use of your time, and still help the Spokane River.

By Tim Connor

Given recent snorkeling excursions, and such, there’s a small list of things that I’m a week behind on. So it wasn’t until yesterday that I noticed Daniel Walters’s, “Greener…Not Cleaner” piece in the November 20th issue of The Inlander. It’s a well-reported story, about the booming over-the-border market in Post Falls and Coeur d’Alene for phosphate-laden dishwasher soap.

As a former reporter, I appreciate not just the reporting, but the genre. Even more than doing stories about idealists who try to legislate morality, journalists enjoy doing stories about what actually happens when morality does get legislated. Frankly, there’s nothing more satisfying to an editor, or a reader, than an insightful story that captures the unintended consequences of good intentions or, even better, bad intentions. Walters’s story does this and, in that way, it’s a small gem of a piece.

It’s just that there are broader dimensions to this story that struck me almost immediately.

Here’s how I’d put it, as a synopsis. This is a story about what happened when Washington state enacted a Spokane County ban on phosphates in dishwasher soap. The ban was enacted because phosphorus in the soaps makes its way to the Spokane River and contributes to the nutrient loading in the river that causes the river’s low-dissolved oxygen (DO) problem, particularly in late summer and early fall. The result of high phosphorus and other nutrients in the river is putrid reservoir water that’s unfit for fish and, in some cases, sickening to dogs and people.

This problem is so complicated that it can give a person a brain cramp because so much of what causes the chronic low dissolved oxygen is related to past and present decisions that are nearly impossible for any one person to affect. But there is one thing you and I can do about it, today, that we know makes a difference. We can do our dishes without using the phosphate-laden dishwasher soaps that have been pulled from shelves in Spokane.

Some will think I’m naively out of touch with domestic realities. I dispute this. You see, I’ve been in kitchens where a few dishes in a load emerge with the little gobs or flakes of what looks to be blow dried collard greens or cheese on them. I’ve heard the yelps and expletives this causes. It’s hard. It can upset the tenuous emotional warmth of an evening or the morning after Thanksgiving. I get that.

But let’s put it in some perspective. We’re not talking here about the need to run to Post Falls to load up on a life-saving antibiotic for your kid. It’s just the dishes, for goshsakes. The worst that’s going to happen, if your soap doesn’t quite work, is you’re going to have to pre-wash a little better, or worse, wash some dishes by hand. And the latter is not a horrible thing. It can even make you a better lover, spouse, and writer. (Don’t scoff, I’ll get back to this.) But that’s my synopsis about why this story has another side to it, or at least how it should be looked at given that the realm of choice and consequences goes well beyond the kitchen. Those little pipes that take waste water away actually do go somewhere. What goes around, comes around.

Now, to be fair to Procter & Gamble and those mavericky Washingtonians bombing over to Idaho for their high-octane dish soap, I need to disclose that I’m a former paid lobbyist for the anti-phosphate dishwasher soap movement. It’s a little awkward to cop to this as it taints my credibility. It’s also hard to admit (given my languishing efforts to attain a swarthy, Shane-like image for myself) that I was a soap sample boy, in the manner of a cigarette girl, only without the skirt and the cute hat.

This happened on my first full day working for Sierra Club back in 2005. It was May 18th to be exact, the 25th anniversary of the Mount St. Helens eruption. The Liberty Lake Water and Sewer District was taking up the issue of a possible ban on phosphate-containing dishwasher soap, and my job was to accompany Sierra Club’s unsinkable Rachael Paschal-Osborn to the meeting and help with her presentation. Mostly this involved walking about the room with a tray laden with little cups and bags of phosphate-free dishwasher powder and tablets.

It was there, at the LLWSD that Rachael and I met one of the prominent sources in Walters’s recent story in The Inlander. His name is Dennis Griesing and he’s the lead lobbyist for the National Soap and Detergent Association. He was there, with at least three other national industry lobbyists, to discourage Liberty Lake from pursuing the ban. I saw Dennis again, months later, at a meeting (during a nasty ice storm) in the Spokane Valley, where County Commissioner Todd Mielke announced his support for a ban on phosphate-containing detergents.

According to Walters’s story, Griesing has changed his position from one of saying that consumers won’t use phosphate-free soaps because they don’t work, to one of saying that Spokane County just jumped the gun, and if we’d waited until 2010, then the American soap industry would have been ready with alternatives that actually clean the dishes.

I’m not going to take you back through my clip file of Consumer Reports articles that dispute what Griesing said back then. What, to me, was telling about the LLWSD meeting in 2005 is that almost all the people from Liberty Lake who testified that evening said the phosphate-free soaps worked for them. Their main complaint was that the alternative products were hard to find on store shelves. My recollection is that the only people who testified against the ban were Griesing and his fellow lobbyists who’d flown in for the meeting.

To be fair to Procter & Gamble and those mavericky Washingtonians bombing over to Idaho for their high-octane dish soap, I need to disclose that I’m a former paid lobbyist for the anti-phosphate dishwasher soap movement. It’s a little awkward to cop to this as it taints my credibility. It’s also hard to admit (given my languishing efforts to attain a swarthy, Shane-like image for myself) that I was a soap sample boy, in the manner of a cigarette girl, only without the skirt and the cute hat.

I had not used the phosphate-free detergents before then but Sierra Club had left-over samples that night and I began using them in our Kenmore dishwasher at home. Some work better than others. I like the Ecover tablets (and their slogan: “Do the dishes, not the fishes.”) The gels I’ve tried don’t work nearly so well. But the Seventh Generation powder works very well in our machine. It doesn’t work quite as well as Cascade. But, so what? From having run thousands of loads with different soaps, the main factor in whether a dish gets clean enough is not whether I’ve used Cascade or Seventh Generation but how I’ve loaded the dishes in the dishwasher. That’s just my truth and I do most of the dishes at our house.

That’s part of what’s missing from The Inlander story. Allowing that different people, with different dishwashers, are going to have different results, the fuller version of the truth is that the alternative soaps already work pretty well for most of us, without much hassle or complaint. On my end, when we use the wrong soap, what I wind up having to do is rewash one or two dishes and clean, by hand, butter knives that are still coated with peanut butter–peanut butter being the nectar our children seem to live on.

I guess I can see that, for some, this extra work can be disappointing and inconvenient. But it’s not earth-shattering and, moreover, it’s not as though America was a failing state before the electric dishwasher.

Doing dishes by hand, if that is the last resort, may not be for every lifestyle but neither is it prison labor. For most of my adult life, this is how I’ve done dishes. I work from home a lot, writing or reading, and it’s actually a welcome relief to take a break and just wash a few dishes in warm, soapy water, by hand. For quality control purposes, it’s great because you actually get to see the dish and distribute your tools and elbow grease according to the task at hand, whether it’s the stubborn layer of egg or cheese on the side of a casserole dish, or a slightly dried blob of ketchup on a plate.

When you get two or more people doing dishes by hand (sharing the washing and the drying, for example) then you have the added social benefit of teamwork, laughter, co-education, and romance. Don’t laugh. The warm soapy water, the intimacy of the hand-offs and such, well, it’s a real opportunity for initiating or nurturing a loving relationship. Among the things you can talk about is how you’re helping the river. But other topics are available and what you do after you’re done with the dishes can be more spiritually and physically enriching than, say, an equivalent amount of time making a run to the Post Falls Wal-Mart. There’s more than one way to save a fish.

The other part of what’s missing from The Inlander story is an examination of the possibility that the Spokane ban may have had a very positive rippling effect throughout the country and beyond. As far as I know, this was the first time in the U.S. that a formal ban on the sale of phosphate-containing dish soap (there have been earlier bans on phosphate-containing laundry soap) actually became law. And, now look. According to Walters’s soap industry sources, the Washington ban (and others coming in effect in the U.S. and Canada) are forcing a major shift in the industry. Walters even quotes Griesing as saying that “we’re going to convert the market (to phosphate free dish soap) in two years” and that he expects by 2010 that complaints about the soap “will have diminished.”

I hope Dennis is right this time. And, if so, then I’m going to have a harder time feeling sheepish about being a Sierra Club soap sample boy.

–Tim Connor

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