The Dirt on Laundry

With a teenager, two dogs, and a life that includes lots of time outdoors, it seems like every day is laundry day in my world. I'm sure I'm not alone. Laundry can be all-consuming, and I mean that literally: It eats up time, electricity, water, and other things. So just how are we doing when it comes to doing the wash?

It's no idle question because the U.S. does around 35 billion loads a year according to estimates.(1)  Each of us generates about a quarter ton of dirty laundry every year! The average household washes about 50 lbs. of laundry a week and more than 6,000 articles annually.(2)  How we get all those clothes clean matters.

Which brings us to the summer issue of Hanging Out (pdf), the newsletter from Project Laundry List, which delves into new government data to divine the state of laundry today.

The big news is that the use of cold water washing is up 51% from 2001. Almost 43 million households (46% of all those with a washing machine) are now cooling it on hot water loads. That's great because 85-90% of the energy we use cleaning our clothes goes toward heating the water.

It also appears that air-drying is on the decline. Project Laundry List's analysis shows that just 5% of households with a washing machine are line drying. That's down from 10% in 2001, and that's a bummer because dryers have the second biggest energy appetite in the home after refrigerators, and cost some $85 a year to operate.(3)

This mixed bag of laundry news underscores a key point: It's individual actions that make the difference. Here's how we can each help ensure that laundry day doesn't wash away the environment:

  • First, use cold water! With most detergents now formulated for it, there's no reason not to.
  • Wash full loads to wring the most out of the water and energy you're using.
  • Launder consciously. Items like pants, sweaters, towels don't always need to be washed after every use.
  • Wash and dry similar items together so that things with longer drying times, like towels, don't extend drying times for quick-dry items like synthetic fiber shirts.
  • Air dry your clothes on a line or a rack.
  • If you use a dryer, keep its lint filters and vents clean. Your dryer works harder and runs longer when they're not. (It's a serious fire hazard, too!)
  • Take your clothes out while they're still slightly damp to save drying energy and even negate the need for ironing.
  • When it's time for a new washer, go for a front loader. These machines use roughly 40% less water and 55% less energy than top loaders.(4)  They're also gentler on clothes and feature a hypersonic spin cycle that almost dries laundry by itself.
  • Use natural laundry detergents. Conventional detergents contain polluting petroleum-based surfactants like alkylphenol ethoxylates, which are linked to hormonal disruption. Natural laundry products like Seventh Generation's, on the other hand, use biodegradable, plant-based ingredients.
  • Skip gimmicks like optical brighteners, which literally coat clothes with a light-reflecting chemical that tricks the eye into thinking laundry is brighter.
  • Lastly, forget chlorine bleach. It's terrible for clothes and a serious water pollutant. Hydrogen peroxide-based bleaches are far easier on fabrics and the planet.


written by:

the Inkslinger

The Inkslinger has written about environmental issues for over 20 years and is a freelance writer for some of America's most iconoclastic companies and non-profits. His true loves include nature, music of the Americana/rock and roll variety, interior design, books, old things, good stories, pagan rituals, and his wife of 24 years, with whom he lives in an undisclosed chemical-free rural Vermont location along with his teenage daughter and two infinitely hilarious Australian shepherds!

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