Washing laundry is a very mundane chore for most people that little thought goes into. However, washing and drying laundry could be having a bigger impact on your health and the environment than you realize. 75-80% of a piece of clothing’s impact on the planet throughout its life comes solely from washing and drying it due to the amount of energy used to power machines and heat water.
When people try to live more environmentally-friendly lives they tend to think about recycling, switching to energy efficient light bulbs, composting and cutting out their use of plastic. But greening your laundry routine could be one of the best changes you can make. Greening your laundry can be done in many ways, from using energy efficient machines and non-toxic detergents to drying laundry on a line and washing on lower temperatures.
Energy Star reports that the average household does almost 400 loads of laundry each year, using approximately 13,500 gallons of water. Energy Star appliances help consumers use less resources and therefore save money.
An Energy Star washing machine can save as much as 7,000 gallons of water each year, which is the equivalent of six people’s lifetime supply of water. They also use less energy and will save around $550 during the lifespan of a washer, covering any extra initial purchase costs.
Throughout America, there are at least 88 million dryers. Each one of these emits more than a ton of carbon dioxide every year. Dryers consume a high amount of energy in the home, coming in second on the list of most energy hungry appliances, after fridges.
This shows just how much they use as fridges are on 24/7, whereas you dryer is probably only used for a few hours each week. It’s estimated that most households can save more than $96 a year in energy by cutting down how much they use their dryer, according to the Department of Energy.
Where possible, use a drying rack or washing line to save money on energy and help to protect the environment. You may even be able to eliminate the use of your dryer completely depending on the weather where you live or how much space you have indoors, which will further help you to save money on not needing to buy or maintain a dryer. By drying your clothes without a dryer, you can save 700 pounds of carbon a year and your clothes will last longer because there’s less wear and tear involved in drying them.
For some people, it’s not practical to completely cut out using a dryer, whether that’s through having children who create a lot of laundry, or living somewhere where outdoor drying space just isn’t available. Clean your dryer’s lint filter regularly to increase how well it works, shortening drying time. Dryers with moisture sensors are a good option as they automatically turn off when clothes are dry. Energy Star have been rating dryers since 2014, so look for approved ones when it comes to buying a new dryer. You may be tempted to use dryer sheets, but these are often full of chemicals that have been linked to cancer, as well as neurotoxins, such as toluene and styrene. Dryer sheets break down organic fibers too, which shortens the life of your clothes.
90 percent of the energy used by washing machines is to heat the water up. The other 10 percent goes on powering the motor. Washing your laundry on lower temperatures can therefore make a huge difference to how much energy you use and how much money you can save.
Washing machine manufacturers are working on making machines work better on cold water settings with modern detergents, while detergent manufacturers are making their products more effective. If you can, wash with cold water, but turning your machine’s temperature down even a little bit can make a big difference, without affecting how clean your clothes are.
Laundry detergents and stain removers contain a lot of different chemicals and ingredients that have been linked to affecting human health, as well as marine life and ecosystems. Alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs) are commonly used as a surfactant, which is an active chemical that helps surfaces become more susceptible to water so that cleaners can easily penetrate the material and wash stains and bacteria away.
APEs are known to have the ability to damage the immune system and it’s believed they can disrupt hormones and mimic how the body regulates reproduction and development. According to the U.S Food and Drug Administration, APEs and similar ingredients may be contaminated with carcinogenic 1.4-dioxane, which can penetrate the skin.
Chlorine bleach is also a common laundry ingredient that may be labelled as sodium hypochlorite. It’s known to cause skin irritation, redness, irritated eyes, nose and airways and can be fatal if swallowed. It’s also dangerous when it mixes with other common household cleaning ingredients, such as ammonia, as it can result in a toxic gas known as chloramine, which can also damage the lungs and airways.
When chlorine bleach is released into the waterways it contaminates drinking water, as well as being another suspected carcinogen, and a reproductive, neurological and immune system toxin, known to cause developmental disorders. Once they’re in the waterways it can take decades for them to break down and become less dangerous.
Phosphates are another widely used ingredient in laundry soaps. These have been linked to causing algal blooms that have negative repercussions for ecosystems and marine life. A 2008 study from the University of Washington looked into top-selling laundry products and found that some emitted almost 100 different volatile organic compounds (VOCs). 58 of these VOCs were above a high concentration of 300 micrograms per cubic meter and 7 are regulated and known to be toxic or hazardous under federal law. More worryingly, all products tested for at least one chemical that is known to be toxic or hazardous, yet none of them were listed on the label. A 2011 study also found that air vented from machines using top liquid detergents and scented dryer sheets contained at least 25 VOCs, including seven hazardous air pollutants. Acetaldehyde and benzene were two of the seven, which are classified as carcinogens by the Environmental Protection Agency, who say there is no safe exposure level.
The good news is that many people are now aware of just how
harmful laundry products can be and manufacturers are making
environmentally-friendly products. Check labels to see that they’re biodegradable, phosphate-free and made from plant-based or
vegetable-based ingredients. These will be better for your health, ecosystems and your clothes. Brands like Ecover and Method are plant-based products, or you can use soap nuts, which are made from tree seeds and produce a soapy substance when mixed with water. They can also be composted after being used.
It’s estimated that laundry products make up to 10% of the population feel ill, thanks to all those nasty ingredients that shouldn’t be anywhere near people’s homes. You can’t get much more eco-friendly than making your own laundry products. It cuts out the chemicals and you’ll have a lot less packaging involved. Making your own laundry soap is really easy.
All you need is 6 cups of washing soda, 3 bars of soap and some lemon essential oil. Grate the soap and mix it with the washing soda. Add 2-3 spoonfuls per load to your washer and pour in about 5 drops of the essential oil each time, which acts as a degreaser. For fabric conditioner, white vinegar can be used as a replacement. Add one cup of it during the rinse cycle of your wash. It’s a natural way to balance the pH level of any soap used, leaves clothes soft and removes any chemical residue.
Microfibers are particles under 5mm. Research from Plymouth University in the UK found that washing 6kg of clothes can release 137,951 fibers from polyester-cotton clothes and 728,789 fibers from acrylic clothes into the ocean. The Plymouth Marine Laboratory ran further tests to confirm that these microfibers get past sewage treatments and are ingested by fish larvae, which will undoubtedly be having detrimental effects. It’s believed that a city the size of Berlin could be releasing the equivalent of 540,000 plastic bags worth of microfibers into the ocean every single day.
Switching to natural fibers, such as cotton, is one of the best ways to avoid releasing plastic microfibers into the oceans. Of course, many people will already have clothes and other fabrics that they wash that aren’t natural materials. Currently, washing machine manufacturers are working on making microfiber filters that are built-in to them.
Ecologist Dr. Mark Browne was one of the first to identify the microfiber problem and is working on his own solution, a programme known as Benign by Design, which hopes to make non-shedding synthetic textiles. Until these options become available, the current best solution is a simple mesh laundry bag that goes into your washing machine. It’s made from a microfilter material that claims to capture 99% of fibers that are released during the washing process.
Laundromat washers and dryers tend to be a lot more efficient than domestic ones. If you live near a laundromat you could save yourself a lot of money on energy and water bills by taking your laundry there instead, as well as helping the environment. You won’t need a washer or dryer in your home if you go to a laundromat, saving you money on buying the machines, maintaining and running them, plus you’ll save some space in your home. Some laundromats are even powered by solar energy, making them even better options. However, if you don’t live near a laundromat and need to drive there then it can be counterproductive, so this one is a judgement call.
Some quick tips for doing laundry in as eco-friendly way as possible include washing full loads only. Your washing machine will use the same amount of water and energy to wash a full load as it will for a half load, so always do laundry when you have enough for a full load. Be mindful of how much detergent you use.
Check the packaging to avoid using too much as this will help to reduce how many chemicals and toxins are being released into waterways, especially if you haven’t switched to plant-based biodegradable products. If you do use a dryer, set it on a timer to avoid it running for longer than necessary and if you’re doing more than one load of laundry put the second lot straight into the dryer after taking the first load out. This avoids the machine having to warm up again.
Finally, wear your clothes more than once before washing them. Many people tend to wear something once and throw it straight into the laundry basket, without checking if it actually needs to be washed yet. Getting out of this habit and being more mindful of how often you wash your clothes can be one of the biggest ways to cut down on how often you run your washer and dryer.
Greening your laundry routine can help to reduce the amount of water and energy needed, improve air pollution in your home leading to better health and increase the lifespan of your clothes. If everyone took steps to be more environmentally-friendly when doing their laundry, it would have a massive effect that would benefit all life on the planet.