By Adrienne Suhm
Laundry is a chore that we don’t spend much time thinking about, but it has serious implications for the planet. From limiting chemical exposure to reducing water waste, revising your laundry habits can only benefit your health and the health of the environment. Below, we’ve detailed four easy tips to improve the sustainability of your laundry routine:
Wash full loads in cold water.
Energy-wise, one hot wash is the equivalent of ten cold washes, because 90% of the energy used by washing machines is used to heat water. Instead, if all US washers switched to cold water, 42 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions would be avoided per year – on an individual level, that’s 350 pounds per person. You will also save on your electricity bill while significantly reducing energy output.
For your monthly bill and the environment, you should also wait to do laundry until you have enough clothing for a full load. Even the most sustainable washing machines require at least 40 gallons of water per wash, meaning that one laundry machine uses as much water in one year as the average person drinks in a lifetime. By running full loads of laundry in a household, 99 pounds of CO2 and hundreds of gallons of water can be saved in a year.
There is no reason to doubt the quality of a cold wash cycle: cold water works just as effectively to clean clothing and even limits wear and tear on over time. Cold water is less damaging for delicate fabrics and minimizes any shrinkage or dark colors bleeding onto lighter clothing. Nevertheless, it is still a good idea to use an occasional short cycle hot wash on items such as sheets and towels during times like flu season, when you really need to eradicate germs and mites in the home.
Air-dry clothing and limit dry cleaning.
It may come as a surprise to learn that the dryer is the second most energy-consuming household appliance, emitting around one ton of CO2 per year. Furthermore, there is no energy efficiency rating for dryers because all brands have a relatively similar (and high) energy expenditure.
Air drying is an easy and sustainable alternative. Simply hang wet clothing on hangers or a drying rack and place it in a dry, sunny place. Make sure that any dark clothing is away from direct sunlight to avoid fading.
Although dry cleaning may seem like a nice substitute for the energy-intensive machines in your home, most dry cleaners use a variety of potent chemicals to clean your apparel. Choose an eco-friendly dry cleaner with transparent methods or purchase clothes that don’t require dry cleaning to avoid unnecessary exposure to toxic chemicals.
Swap to sustainable products or make your own.
Ingredients like chlorine bleach, synthetic fragrance, dyes, and optical brighteners mask the presence of petroleum and other undesirable chemicals in common laundry products. Chlorine bleach and optical brighteners are known irritants and are harmful for the environment, especially marine ecosystems. Similarly, fragrances often contain high amounts of phthalates and endocrine disruptors that are specifically formulated to stick to your clothes after washing. Companies are not required to list the ingredients included in scent formulas, so be wary if you find fragrance in the ingredient list with no further explanation.
Dryer sheets contain these synthetic fragrances and up to 25 types of VOCs (chemicals that can have adverse short- and long-term health effects), including known carcinogens like acetaldehyde and benzene. They are also a one-time use product, which creates unnecessary waste. Find a natural brand of dryer sheet or skip them entirely in favor of wool dryer balls, which are completely chemical-free and reusable for up to 1,000 loads of laundry.
Cleaning product manufacturers have convinced the public that fabric softener is crucial to achieve a soft clothing texture. In reality, it is a completely unnecessary part of your laundry routine. To act as a softening agent, the chemicals in fabric softener actually coat your clothing, locking in odor and reducing the effectiveness of detergent. Conventional softeners can include animal products such as tallow, which clogs the washing machine and piping and encourages bacteria and mold growth when exposed to moisture-rich air. The good news is that fabric softener can be easily eliminated from your routine in favor of all-natural white vinegar. Substitute an equal amount of white vinegar for fabric softener in your washing machine and add a few drops of essential oil for scent as desired.
Natural products present a win-win situation for your family, the environment, and your clothing: they are non-toxic and specifically formulated to function well in cold water. In the store, look for laundry products and brands that have a short ingredient list with contents that you can recognize. If you want to do your own research, the EWG database is a helpful tool to understand different home products. The database ranks more than 2,500 home products on a variety of health and sustainability metrics and can be found at https://www.ewg.org/guides/cleaners#.WvhJZdOFO8V.
Your DIY laundry arsenal should include ingredients like baking soda, white vinegar, lemon, and sea salt. While baking soda won’t clean your clothing on its own, it can be substituted in place of half of your detergent with the same cleaning effect. Use it to soften and whiten clothing, but never on wool or silk. As mentioned above, white vinegar is a natural substitute for fabric softener, while a squeeze of lemon juice brightens whites and limits odor and salt can be added to your wash cycle to eliminate stains and prevent color bleeding.
If you are purchasing new appliances, look for energy efficiency.
Lastly, if you are in the process of purchasing new laundry appliances, seek out the most energy-efficient options. Machine efficiency is constantly improving as appliance brands explore new technology – for example, between 1981 and 2003, there was an 88% average increase in washing machine efficiency. An easy way to guarantee energy efficiency is to pick a machine that is Energy Star labeled. Energy Star washers use half of the water and up to 30% less energy than non-labeled machines. However, be aware that the Energy Star label does not extend to dryers, because there is little difference in energy efficiency among different dryer brands, so we recommend avoiding the dryer entirely and air drying whenever possible.