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There are plenty of things ordinary people can do to reduce the environmental impact of doing laundry. More...

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Doing laundry impacts the environment in a surprising number of ways.  A washer (and the hot water heater it is connected to), dryer and iron all require electricity, which generates greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.  A washing machine uses clean water and creates wastewater.  Most detergents are made of chemicals and come in containers that eventually become solid waste.  However, there are plenty of things ordinary people can do to minimize these impacts.

Start with what you wear
With the exception of underpants, most clothes do not need to be washed after one wearing.  Change out of good clothes into work or play clothes if you’re going to get dirty.  An apron, old work shirt, overalls or a work suit protects clothes underneath.  Avoid clothes that need to be dry cleaned with toxic solvents.

Clothesline. Photo by Bet Zimmerman.
There’s nothing like the smell of laundry dried outside in fresh air. Line drying also saves elastic, prevents shrinkage, and eliminates static cling.

Look for detergents that are low toxicity, biodegrade rapidly and don’t contain phosphates, petroleum-derived constituents like nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs), or chlorine.  Popular brands of ‘environmentally friendly’ detergents include Ecos, Nature Clean, Earth Rite, Ecover, Seventh Generation and Bi-o-Kleen.  Some appliance experts recommend using much less than the recommended dose of detergent (unless you have hard water).  Buy concentrate, economy refills or the largest size container you can handle.  Recycle empty plastic containers.  Select detergents designed for cold water washing. 

Cold water is easier on fabrics, and reduces greenhouse gas emissions by about 6.5 pounds per load.  My mother and I switched to cold water washing only. We both found that laundry gets almost as clean, as long as stains are pre-treated.  Always use a cold water rinse – warm or hot rinses do not get clothes any cleaner.  Setting your water heater at 120°F can cut energy costs for washing by 20%.  Wash full loads – most people actually under-load their washer.  If you need to do a smaller load, adjust the water level.  If you have a top loading washer without an automatic dispenser, let the detergent dissolve in the water before adding clothes to improve cleaning action.  

Dry full loads (small loads reduce the tumbling effect and may lengthen drying time), but don’t cram so much in that air can’t circulate around items.  Separate fabrics that dry more quickly (like lightweight synthetics) from those that take longer (like towels.)  Dry loads back-to-back to take advantage of heat build-up.  Clean the lint filter after each load to maximize air flow and dryer performance.  Make sure your outside dryer vent is clean and clear.  Iron less by removing items directly from the dryer while they are still warm and lying them flat in a stack. 

Clotheslines are making a comeback. 
Wind and sunshine are still free. Many ads for detergents and fabric softeners use images of clothes flapping on a line.  The real thing is better.  There’s nothing like the smell of laundry dried outside in fresh air.  Line drying also saves elastic, prevents shrinkage, and eliminates static cling.  Sun bleaches whites naturally, and works even better if you add ¼ cup of lemon juice to the rinse cycle.  Dark clothes should be hung inside-out or dried on a rack inside.  Shake items out or smooth before hanging to minimize wrinkling.  Pull out pockets on pants to dry them out faster.  Hang shirts by the hemline to avoid clothespin marks/stretching.  During pollen season, inclement or dusty weather, use an indoor drying rack or line.  Even if items do not dry out completely, you can still cut dryer time by about two-thirds.

When it is time to purchase a new appliance, pick an energy efficient model and get the right size for your needs.  Seriously consider a front loader.  A typical top loading machine uses 18 to 40 gallons of water per load.  A front loader may use as little as 5 gallons, which also means less water to heat. Although the initial purchase cost is higher, more items fit inside, they extract more water which reduces drying time, are gentler on fabrics because there is no agitator, and require about one-quarter the amount of detergent.  Dryers with moisture sensors that automatically shut off when clothes are dry can reduce energy use by 15%. 

It all adds up to cost savings, clean laundry and a clean planet.

More tips:

  • Avoid dryer sheets that dull fabrics with a waxy coating.  Do not use fabric softener on towels as it reduces absorption. Instead, dry natural fibers and synthetics separately, or add ¼ cup of white vinegar or baking soda to the wash cycle.  
  • Consumer Reports indicates that there is no appreciable difference between powder or liquid detergents.  Their appliance experts recommend filling the cap with just one inch of liquid detergent. Note that their study found that the OxiClean detergent ball and Dropps performed quite poorly. See article.
  • Unlike the scene in the animated Stuart Little movie, water does not pour out when you open the door of a front loader.
  • Avoid clothes that need to be dry-cleaned. Some say you can dry clean clothes once to “set’ the fabric, and afterwards hand wash them using a gentle detergent, and dry them on a clothesline or on a low tumble dry setting. 
  • Unless you don’t mind an occasional bird deposit, don’t put clotheslines under trees.
  • Patronize a commercial cleaner reuses hangers and bags.  Try to find one that employs  new ‘clean green’ technology like liquid carbon dioxide or silicone in lieu of solvents, or that uses a ’wet cleaning’ alternative. 


02/28/08, Hartford Courant: Connecticut lawmakers are considering a bill that would grant people the "the right to dry." The legislation would forbid any governing body from imposing rules that would prohibit people from hanging their laundry outside on clotheslines, drying racks or other devices.

Links to Environmentally Friendly Products

  • Earth Rite: 800-284-2023
  • Ecos: 800-335-3267; www.ecos.com
  • Ecover: 800-449-4925; www.ecov er.com
  • Seventh Generation: 802-658-3773; www.seventhgeneration.com

Other brands use citrus fruits for their cleaning abilities and scents; look for:

  • Bi-O-Kleen: 503-557-0216; www.bi-o-kleen.com
  • Sun and Earth: 800-298-7861; www.sunandearth.com

More Information and Articles:


Originally published in the Villager newspapers on September 14, 2007


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