Did you know that April 15 is National Laundry Day? It’s unclear what we’re celebrating because laundry requires a lot of water and energy, but there are several habits that make this necessary task more sustainable. Here are some suggestions, from simple to complex:
1) Increase load size but decrease frequency
This may be obvious but let’s say it anyway. Washing small or partial loads frequently is inefficient. Hold off on running the laundry machine until you have a full basket of clothes, just like you wait to run the dishwasher until you have a full load of dishes. Also, consider whether you really need to wash every item every time you wear it. Socks, yes, but do jeans get that dirty during Zoom calls from home?
2) Wash laundry in cold water
This is a no-brainer. For most laundry needs, cold water does as good a job at getting clothes clean as warm or hot water. And based on data from UK-based Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), washing clothes at 86F uses only about 40% as much energy as washing clothes at 104F. An added benefit of using cold water is it extends the lifespan of your clothes.
3) Replace Fabric Softeners and Dryer Sheets
Textile conditioners often contain toxic ingredients such as phosphates, synthetic fragrance, benzyl acetate, toluene, and chloroform, all of which can be harmful to the skin and the environment. If you are committed to especially soft and scented, static-free laundry, HERE is a list of fabric softeners that replace synthetic chemicals with plant-based ingredients.
This list of "Top 10 Fabric Softener Alternatives" includes easy-to-find brands like Seventh Generation and Myers. Affordable household staples such as white vinegar and baking soda work well too, without unnecessary exposure to chemicals.
4) Update Your Method of Drying Clothes
Many people have become fans of tennis ball sized wool dryer balls that you throw in your dryer to fluff up clothes and reduce drying time. We talked about this in a previous article, but air-drying some of your laundry on indoor racks or outdoors on clothing lines saves a lot on dryer energy. Check out this NY Times article on the best clothes-drying racks.
5) Reduce and Manage Microfibers
The Guardian says the shedding of plastic microfibers is “the biggest environmental problem you never heard of…each cycle of a washing machine can release more than 700,000 microscopic plastic fibers into the environment.” Because of their elasticity, ability to wick perspiration, and durability, synthetics such as polyester, nylon, spandex, and rayon are ubiquitous. You’ll find them in active wear, fleeces, swimsuits, undergarments, and countless other items. Even jeans can be a cotton-synthetic blend. The downside is that not only are synthetic fibers derived from petroleum, a nonrenewable fossil fuel, but when this type of clothing is washed, tiny plastic threads slough off and go down the drain. Since they are much too tiny to be filtered out at wastewater treatment plants, they can wind up in the ocean, where they are readily consumed by marine life and other wildlife. Their long, loopy shape easily get caught in digestive tracts and bioaccumulate in larger animals higher up on the food chain, including we humans who eat them. The International Union of Conservation of Nature estimated that 35% of all microplastics in the ocean comes from the laundering of synthetic textiles.
Reducing microfibers isn’t merely an exercise in altruism but a long-term commitment to protecting our waterways. You can reduce the release of microfibers by grouping together synthetic loads and washing clothes less often, but an even greater impact is buying fewer synthetic clothes to begin with. This "Fiber Eco-Review" article gives an excellent overview of the pros and cons of various fibers, including hemp, bamboo, down, and more!
Some nifty new gadgets like laundry balls, wash bags, and filters actually capture microfibers. SCOCO staffer Colleen Noland provided this comprehensive guide on microfiber filters such as the Cora Ball, which costs around $20.
6) Compare Gas vs. Electric Dryers
If you’re in the market for a new dryer, consider options carefully. As far as up-front costs go, gas dryers are typically more expensive to buy than electric dryers (between $50 – 100 more), but gas costs less than electricity and gas dryers run hotter than electric dryers so loads take less time to dry, therefore, gas wins out for lower utility bills and long-term affordability. Electric dryers are powered by a 240-volt current to run the electric heating coils and motors. For perspective, this is twice the power needed for most household appliances. It takes a long time to heat up the coils enough to start drying clothes and they need to run longer to fully dry clothes, so they are not very energy-efficient. On the plus side, electric dryers are relatively low-maintenance and have budget-friendly repair costs. Also, most homes already have wiring in place for electric. Because gas appliances expel carbon monoxide, gas dryers require their own vent to the outdoors and should never be vented into the garage or other enclosed space, so always have them installed by a professional. If you do just a few loads a week, an electric dryer may be more practical, however, if you have a large family or do laundry often, investing in a gas dryer makes more sense. Either way, be sure to check out the Energy Star ratings on newer models. They indicate efficiency in saving energy. For more on gas vs. electric dryers, check THIS. For an article on the best eco-friendly washing machines of 2021, GO HERE.
7) Install A Greywater System
Every load of laundry uses 45 – 55 gallons of water. Watering your lawn uses 3 – 10 gallons of water per minute. Wouldn’t it be great if you could bring your laundry and irrigation needs together? Greywater systems are set up to divert gently used, untreated, uncontaminated water (e.g. from food or human waste) from your laundry machine to irrigation lines that lead to outdoor, non-edible plants and landscaping. There are laundry detergents on the market that are ideal for greywater systems and won’t harm plants because they are biodegradable, low in phosphates, and devoid of harmful bleach. Learn about greywater on the Cleaner Contra Costa action page. Watch the video of "Sustainability LIVE" on installing a greywater system.
Happy National Laundry Day!
Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash