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Month Less Plastic: DIY Dishwasher Detergent

DIY Dishwasher Detergent

So much for my nay-saying ways! I knew it was possible to make dishwasher detergent, but I was sure it wasn’t possible to make dishwasher detergent that would work in our incredibly hard well water. And I wasn’t convinced it would be possible to get the necessary ingredients without a pile of plastic packaging. I was so certain I’d be stuck buying dishwasher detergent in plastic of some sort, I didn’t even bother looking up recipes during our first Month Less Plastic last summer.

This summer, I promised myself I would confront the products I was still buying in plastic, the every day items we use up and replace on a regular basis: Dishwasher detergent, rinse aid, dish soap for the kitchen sink, hand soap for the bathrooms, shampoo and conditioner.

I tackled dishwasher detergent a couple of weeks ago, staring with a bit of online research into alternatives. I found the same basic recipe in many places, and since I had every ingredient except one already in my house, I figured I’d mix up a batch, discover that it didn’t work, and go back to my favored dishwasher tablets.

I am so happy I was mistaken.

Yes! DIY dishwasher detergent works! Even for those of us with nasty-hard water! It’s true!

Bonus: It costs much less than whatever you’re buying now, unless you’re already way ahead of me on this and make your own. This recipe comes close to filling a 1-quart Mason jar, and each dishwasher load requires just 1 teaspoon of the finished mix.

Another bonus: This is eco-friendly, and not just because there’s little plastic packaging involved; all of the ingredients are safe and natural. For more information about each ingredient, check out Planet Green’s version.

I’ve noticed that sometimes my glasses come out sparkling clear and sometimes they come out coated with a bit of a film. I’m still tinkering with that, but it seems to be related to the amount of vinegar in the rinse aid cup. If I remember to fill it for each load and keep it dialed to its highest release setting, this mixture performs as well as the fancy-shmancy plastic-wrapped but otherwise eco-friendly dishwasher tablets I’ve given up.

(See my update here – In a nutshell, if I add straight baking soda on top of 1 tsp of this DIY mix into my dishwasher’s detergent cup, my dishes are much less streaky.)

DIY Dishwasher Detergent:

1 cup washing soda

1 cup borax

1/2 cup kosher salt

1/2 to 1 cup citric acid (1/2 cup for soft water, 1 cup for hard)

Mix it all together. Store it in a jar with a nice tight lid.

Use 1 teaspoon per load.

use 1 teaspoon per load

For this to work well, you need a good rinse aid. Fortunately, that is easy to come by.

DIY Dishwasher Rinse Aid:

white vinegar

Fill your dishwasher’s rinse aid holder with plain white vinegar. Adjust your machine if possible to release the maximum amount of vinegar with each load, and refill with each load. I’m reusing the plastic bottle that my eco-friendly rinse aid came in – The squirt top makes it easy to get the vinegar mostly where I want it.

use white vinegar as your rinse aid

Now, you may be wondering where to find washing soda, borax, and citric acid in your local grocery. You should find both washing soda and borax with the laundry detergents or cleaning supplies. They’re usually tucked onto the top shelf, where the other lesser-used items are located, the ones without television advertising campaigns. And they’re usually packaged in cardboard, no plastic at all.

Citric acid can be a bit trickier. During canning season, you might be lucky to find a product called Fruit Fresh for sale near the pectin and other canning supplies. In my local stores, these things are tucked onto a shelf near the baking supplies. But Fruit Fresh comes in a plastic container, it’s a bit pricey in my store, and citric acid is not its first ingredient.

Fortunately, there is another product in pretty much every American store that has citric acid as its first ingredient: Kool-Aid unsweetened lemonade. This is a great example of just how far off my beaten track this life less plastic is taking me. I have never purchased any Kool-Aid product, for anyone in my family to consume in any way. But my rules have shifted, and I’m willing to overlook the artificial colorings and other suspect ingredients to get clean dishes without a load of new plastic.

Of course, nothing is quite perfect: Each envelope does have a hidden plastic layer, and that’s what makes this not entirely plastic-free. I think there may be a way to recycle the envelopes – I’m checking with my local disposal/recycling company about this. Perhaps it’s possible to find citric acid without any plastic packaging – So far everything I’ve found online ships in a plastic bag with more plastic tape on the shipping box. If you have a plastic-free citric acid source, please do share! But even if I’m stuck with unsweetened lemonade packets, the amount of plastic per dishwasher load is much less than with any commercial detergent.

For the record, I found my Kool-Aid on sale for 10 cents per packet, much less than the $9 1/2 cup container of Fruit Fresh. I bought all 25 lemonade packets the store had, and they measured out at just under the 1 cup the recipe calls for. That was close enough for me.

Edited to add: I’ve just learned that Central Market in Poulsbo, WA carries citric acid in their bulk department. Those of us who live nearby can bring in our own jars to fill and get ourselves all the plastic-free citric acid we desire. Radiance in Olympia, WA and Tenzing Momo in Seattle, WA might also have bulk citric acid and welcome customers who practice BYOJ shopping. Market Spice in Seattle has bulk citric acid. Many thanks to everyone who shared a citric acid tip!

Please let me know if you try this, or if you have a plastic-free or less plastic solution for dishwasher detergent. If you do mix up your own, please label it so everyone knows it’s poisonous. If you use the lemonade packets, the final product will smell good enough to eat, or mix up with some water to drink. That would be fatal, so please keep yours in a safe and secure place, away from children and adults who like to mix up lemonade. Really, keep it in a safe and secure place, properly labeled, whether or not you use the lemonade.

Beware: This smells edible but it is POISON!

Here’s to clean dishes, plastic-free!

15 comments on “Month Less Plastic: DIY Dishwasher Detergent

  1. Last I checked there was a store in Olympia called Radiance that sells herbs, beeswax and other items of that sort in bulk. I bought citric acid (pure crystal) from there at some point for making my own fizzy bath bombs. I do hope they are still around, perhaps they ship? You might also check Tenzig Momo in the Pike Place Market for raw ingredients like this, they often carry such things, also in bulk- byo containers or use their paper bags.

  2. Hey Rebecca, great idea! Thanks for posting. Btw, Market Spice in Poike Place Market carries citric acid for $14.95/lb. I am happy to pick up for anyone local since I work in the same building! I will be trying this this weekend!

  3. [...] This is even easier to mix up than the DIY Dishwasher Detergent… [...]

  4. [...] the kitchen sink: baking soda instead of plastic-bottled dish soap (it really works), DIY dishwasher detergent, choice scraps of food for our [...]

  5. [...] the kitchen sink: baking soda instead of plastic-bottled dish soap (it really works), DIY dishwasher detergent, choice scraps of food for our [...]

  6. Love this post and will try it out soon! Thanks for sharing. I was just wondering, could you use lemon or lime juice in place of the citric acid? If it works it could be a friendlier option with a lovely fresh clean smell :)

    • Clare, that’s a great question! I didn’t see any recipes using liquid lemon juice when I went searching for ways to make my own, but I’m going to have to experiment and see if it works. I’ll let you know – Please do the same if you try fresh juice!

  7. [...] This is even easier to mix up than the DIY Dishwasher Detergent… [...]

  8. [...] tinkered with my DIY Dishwashing Detergent a bit.  My first few dishwasher loads were lovely, but then something happened and my glasses [...]

  9. I tried this and it was a disaster, I used 1 tablespoon as directed and my glasses came out with a white film on themc. My dishes and cutlery were also coated with a white film… Where did I go wrong??????????

    • I’m so sorry it didn’t work out right from the beginning! Without knowing what sort of water chemistry you have, I suspect two things: You may need a lot less powder for your water, and you need more rinse aid. Does your washer have a rinse aid dispenser? If so, can you adjust it to let more out per load, then fill it with white vinegar? That’s what works for me – The least amount of detergent possible and as much white vinegar rinse aid as necessary to help it all rinse out completely. Also, what sort of citric acid are you using? I think straight citric acid is more powerful than Kool-Aid lemon drink powder, for instance. Hope that helps a bit, and that this will work out for you with some easy tinkering.

  10. You do realize that all those cardboard packages are coated in plastic right? So not completely plastic free.

    • Hi Teresa –
      Actually, the baking soda and washing soda I can buy here come in straight-up, recyclable paperboard boxes, without any hidden layers of polyethylene. The Kool-Aid packets do have a layer of that, as I point out, which is why I was so excited to find citric acid in the bulk department of one of my local grocery stores (and one of my winemaker friends also has it in bulk to share). So at least for me, with the brands I can find where I live, this is plastic-free on the consumer level. I have no doubt there’s plastic upstream in the production and storage of these ingredients, to say nothing of the carbon footprint of their transportation to me.

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