Tips for making laundry day more gentle on the environment

Helen Carefoot

THE WASHINGTON POST – Laundry day isn’t exactly fun for most people, but it can be downright unpleasant for the Earth.

Washers guzzle gallons of water and dryers use up energy. Detergents and dryer sheets can release chemicals into water that has to be treated, and washing clothes can release micro-plastics that are accumulating in the world’s waterways at alarming rates.

But it’s getting easier to clean your clothes while staying green. “You do have to wash your clothes, but you can do a very good job of minimising the impact,” said associate professor of earth and environmental sciences at Vanderbilt University Jonathan Gilligan, who has studied the effects of individual actions on greenhouse gas emissions. Although one consumer’s decision to switch to a more efficient washer isn’t going to counter the cumulative effects of major industries on its own, he said, “It can have an effect.” Individual actions add up.

Here are expert-backed strategies to tweak laundry day to be greener – and less of a chore.

The machines you use have a significant effect on the amount of energy and water you save – or waste – on laundry day, experts said. Older appliances can rack up high utility bills, while newer, high-efficiency washers use less water and energy with lower temperatures and higher spin speeds.

In most cases, front-loading washers will be more efficient than top-loading ones, because the drum’s position can create a faster spin cycle. “If the washer is able to wring out most of the water from the clothes, then the dryer is going to have significantly less work to do,” which saves energy, said Editorial Director Jessica Petrino of AJ Madison, a home and kitchen appliances store based in New York City.

Clothes should come out of the washer damp, not soaked. According to Petrino, front-loaders with about 1,200 revolutions per minute (RPM) or more are considered to be high-efficiency.

Many dryers now have moisture sensors that help detect water on clothes. Heat pump dryers, which are popular in Europe, are another option; they use less energy than standard models by re-circulating air within the drum, which conserves energy. Petrino said they aren’t popular in the United States (US), because US appliances generally are much larger than European ones, but she predicts that the technology will be adapted in the next decade.

In many cases, it makes more sense economically and environmentally to upgrade machines that are more than 10-years-old, experts said. They recommend machines certified by the US government’s Energy Star programme. Energy Star-certified washers use about 25 per cent less energy and about 33 per cent less water than standard models, the programme’s website said, and Americans could save more than USD3.3 billion per year in bills and cut more than 19 billion pounds of annual greenhouse gas emissions if every washer bought in the US carried the rating.

The Energy Star programme maintains an extensive database of home appliances with detailed product specifications online(energystar.gov), plus a tool to search for rebates and claim tax credits for energy-efficient appliances.

And remember: A clean machine is an efficient machine. Run white vinegar through a cleaning cycle to clear out product residue and bacteria when it gets stinky. (Founder of Toronto cleaning service Clean My Space Melissa Maker said to do this two to four times a year to be safe.) Once or twice a year, clean the dryer duct and the washer’s drain pump. And empty the dryer’s lint trap before every load.

Even the most efficient machine will still waste water and electricity if you don’t know how to operate it properly, Maker said. Auto cycles can add too much water or heat. Read the instruction manual; unless something is really soiled, a basic cold- or warm-water cycle is sufficient to clean in combination with a high-efficiency machine and detergent.

Avoiding the dryer altogether is one of the biggest energy-saving switches you could make, and it could help clothes last longer. The dryer “adds abrasion, and there’s no real way to avoid that, even if you turn down the heat”, said author of Laundry Love: Finding Joy in a Common Chore Patric Richardson. Air-drying outside on a dry, sunny day using a rack or clothesline is ideal; don’t set up the rack in an area with debris, dust or excessive humidity. If wrinkles are an issue, Richardson recommends line-drying, then putting clothes in the dryer for a quick air cycle.

Stretch the time between washes by re-wearing clothes and reusing towels, which is gentler on fabrics and can help clothes last longer. Avoid small loads, but don’t crowd a machine, which can make it work harder. And take a look at the amount of detergent you’re using. Excess detergent will be harder to rinse out, leaving clothes with a crunchy feeling and extending washing and drying times.

Lastly, think about your clothes themselves. Julie Masura, who teaches environmental science at the University of Washington at Tacoma and studies marine microplastics in Puget Sound, suggests wearing natural materials to prevent micro-plastics from being carried out through wastewater; loose-weave clothing, cut edges with frays and fabrics that ball up are most likely to shed, she wrote in an email. She uses the Guppyfriend washing bag (USD34.95, guppyfriend.us) to catch errant fibres.

Co-owner Jean Calleja of the Eco Laundry Company, a sustainable wash-and-dry service in New York, said his company gives customers two options: Ecos’ hypoallergic detergent with built-in softener or the Laundress’s scented signature detergent. Both are plant-based.

But not all products are what they claim to be. Look for specific, verifiable claims, not nebulous terms such as “natural” or “eco-friendly”. Besides Good Housekeeping’s Green seal, which evaluates product performance and brands’ environmental effect, Director of the Good Housekeeping Institute’s home appliances and cleaning products lab Carolyn Forte advised looking for products with the USDA Certified BioBased label, a voluntary labelling programme that denotes products made or partly made from renewable agricultural products; the Environmental Protection Agency’s Safer Choice label highlights ingredients that are deemed safer for humans and the environment than traditional chemical ingredients.

Richardson also has an easy fix: Don’t buy products with lots of ingredients you can’t identify or pronounce. For example, instead of fabric softeners with irritating fragrances, he suggests adding white vinegar in the machine’s fabric softener cap to relax fibres without the lasting film. Wool or plastic dryer balls can be reused in place of dryer sheets to cut static. Baking soda can help with stains.

And don’t forget packaging. Powdered or solid products are easier to package and ship than liquids.

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