We don’t always give them much thought, but our washers and dryers can account for a significant part of our home’s energy and water use. The average family does as many as eight loads of laundry every week, requiring a good deal of energy and thousands of gallons of water. If you’re trying to shrink your ecological footprint, consider some of these simple ways to minimize the impact of your laundry.
1. Use an energy efficient washing machine
A high efficiency washer may use less than half the amount of water of a conventional top loader. While a top loader can use as much as 54 gallons of water, the most efficient machines use only seven. Multiply that savings by the hundreds of loads you do each year, and you’re saving thousands of gallons of water.
High efficiency washers also use less electricity, and because they use less water, they’ll also require less energy to heat that water if you do warm or hot loads. In addition, they leave clothes dryer, so you’ll cut drying time and thus energy use. They’re also gentler on clothes so your clothes will last longer, yet another way high efficiency washers save energy. Of course, all these savings of water and energy means you’ll be saving money as well. Replacing an older washer with a high efficiency one will likely pay for itself over the machine’s lifetime.
When camping or traveling, you can even skip the washer altogether with a clever Scrubba bag that lets you wash small loads of laundry by hand in just a few minutes. Lightweight and portable, this bag is perfect for traveling and camping. Scrubba donates some its profits to clean water projects around the world.
2. Wash less often
Some folks have been trained to think that if they wear something once, it needs to hit the hamper. Not so. If it looks and smells clean, go a little longer between washes and you’ll save water, energy (your own and the electrical sort), and time. Run only full loads and save still more energy and water. The larger capacity of high efficiency washers also lets you wash fewer loads overall.
3. Use cold water
Cut the energy used to clean your clothes by choosing cold water settings as often as possible. Up to 90% of the energy used to wash your clothes goes to heating water! If every load laundered in the US used cold water instead of hot, the country would slash millions of tons of carbon emissions each year. This simple switch may also save you hundreds of dollars per year, depending on how much laundry you do, what kind of water heater you have, and what your utility rates are.
4. Avoid harmful chemicals
Conventional detergents, stain removers, and dryer sheets contain synthetic chemicals linked to endocrine disruption, developmental toxicity, and other health concerns. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of non-toxic alternatives for your laundry room, from plant-based detergents to oxygen-based brighteners. Good old white vinegar makes an effective fabric softener and stain remover.
5. Use a clothesline or dryer balls to reduce energy consumption
Clothes dryers are second only to refrigerators in household energy use, so cutting back on drying will reduce your home’s carbon footprint. Line-dry clothes when you can, which will also help your clothes last longer. Outside, you can use a simple clothesline or breeze catcher and your clothes will benefit from the anti-microbial and whitening effects of the sun. Breeze catchers offer as much as 140 linear feet of drying space and rotate in the wind for faster drying times.
In winter, if you don’t have a good place for a clothesline outside, or your family has pollen allergies, you can hang clothes inside to dry. Just be sure to allow adequate ventilation, so moisture levels don’t get too high and promote indoor mold growth.
Some people like to hang clothes near their wood-burning stove, which not only helps clothes dry faster, but also adds humidity to dry indoor air.
When you do run the dryer, be sure to keep your lint screen clean so air can flow and dry your clothes faster. Use the moisture-sensing setting if your dryer has one rather than timed drying. Also, try dryer balls to reduce dry time and soften clothes. Dryer balls let you avoid the harmful chemicals in conventional dryer sheets; you can add essential oils if you want your clothes scented.
6. Choose natural clothing fibers
When we launder synthetic fibers like polyester fleece, acrylic, and nylon, thousands of microscopic pieces of plastic wash away with the rinse water. Research has shown that marine life ingest these fibers and absorb plastics into their tissue, not healthy for them or for the animals eat them—including us! You can help the plastic pollution problem by choosing organic cotton, wool, bamboo or other natural fibers for your clothing and bedding.
7. Skip the dry cleaners
Most dry cleaners use a chemical called perc (short for perchloroethylene) that research has linked to cancer and other health problems. The easiest way to avoid it? Don’t buy clothes that require dry cleaning! When I see “dry clean only” on a label, I just move on.
If you already own clothes that call for dry cleaning, see if there’s a “green cleaner” near you. These alternative cleaners use liquid carbon dioxide to clean clothes safely without exposing you or their workers to perc. Bonus points if you give them the plastic and hangers back to use for another customer!
Many delicate fabrics can be hand washed or put in the delicate cycle of your high efficiency washer, which is gentler on clothes than top loaders.
Some simple tweaks to your laundry routine will not only cut down on energy and water but will save you money as well. Think of all the other uses that money could be put to! You could get that rain barrel or solar oven you’ve been eyeing, or put a deposit on the solar panels you’ve been wanting to really green your home. Plus, you’ll revel in the knowledge that you’ve taken another step to make your home as green and eco-friendly as possible.
How to Select an Environmentally Friendly Laundry Detergent
Store shelves are lined with bottles and boxes of laundry detergents shouting “Green”, “Organic”, “Natural”. But are these really better for the environment?
Laundry Detergent Ingredients and the Environment
The largest problem ingredients for the environment in laundry detergents are phosphates and some surfactants, mainly nonylphenol ethoxylates or NPE. Phosphates were banned from United States-produced laundry detergents in the 1970s, so they are not a severe problem.
Surfactants, which help soil to float away from garments, form a micelle which surrounds the piece of dirt and carries it away. The micelle are toxic to fish because they get into the fish gills and impairs their ability to get oxygen from the water. The largest detergent manufacturer in the United States, Proctor and Gamble (Tide, Gain) stopped using this nonylphenol ethoxylate surfactants several years ago and phosphates have been banned in laundry detergents for many years.
Other environmental concerns are the chemicals in detergent that are derived from petroleum and the impact of plastic packaging. Most major manufacturers now use containers that can be recycled and often contain post-consumer recycled plastic.
Even knowing which chemical compounds to avoid can be difficult because they are seldom listed on labels. While some manufacturers list every laundry detergent ingredient on the label, most do not because it is not required by law. However, with a little effort, you can visit each manufacturer’s website to view a list of complete ingredients. That’s where the EPA Safer Choice logo becomes extremely helpful. When you see that designation, you know that you’re buying an environmentally friendly product.
The EPA also provides a Safer Chemical Ingredients list on the Safer Choice website to help you with comparison research. You can also select a detergent without added dyes and fragrances to reduce chemical exposure for your family and the environment.
The EPA Safer Choice Program
In the early 2000s, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) introduced a program called Design for the Environment to let us know which products live up to their claims. One of the products that was included in the program was laundry detergent. The agency asked manufacturers to provide a complete list of ingredients. If the company was using the safest chemical for each type of ingredient, the product earned a special designation. If the product was not environmentally friendly, the EPA encouraged the company to reformulate the product. The Design for the Environment Seal was awarded to laundry detergents that met EPA requirements as both good for business and the environment.
As more than 2,000 diverse products qualified for the program, the EPA branding and labels were changed to the Safer Choice program. Products with the Safer Choice label identify products with safer chemical ingredients for the environment that consumers can use without sacrificing quality or performance.
The Safer Choice program offers a list of safe cleaning products on its website ranging from all-purpose cleaners to hand soaps to laundry detergents, fabric softeners and boosters. You’ll see that only a few laundry detergent brands are listed. This does not mean that all others are “bad”. Applying for certification is currently voluntary. As more manufacturers reformulate a safer cleaning product and performance testing, additional detergents will receive the designation.
If you want to purchase from a company that is 100% chemical free and uses essential oils that have not be exposed to synthetic fertilizers or weed killing chemicals I’d highly recommend Young Living’s Thieves Laundry Soap. The Thieves line of products is actually amazing. Toothpaste (which my family and I love to use), Thieves foaming hand soap, Thieves dish soap, and the list just goes on!
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