JAN 16, 2017 4:06 AM PST

Make Your Laundry Eco-friendly

What do you know about the environmental impact that your laundry habits have? According to  Energy Star, the average household does almost 400 loads of laundry each year. That consumes about 13,500 gallons of water. And your dryer isn’t much better: it emits more than one ton of carbon dioxide every year and costs you $100 annually. So what can you do to minimize your impact?

First of all you can wear your clothes more than once before you wash them! The United Nations Environment Programme determined the stats and figured out that you can consume up to five times less energy by wearing your jeans at least three times, washing them in cold water, and skipping the dryer or the iron. And if you wash your clothes with eco-friendly detergent, you’re making a big difference. Treehugger explains: “Conventional detergents can contain ingredients that aren't good for you, your clothes, or aquatic ecosystems where the dirty water we wash down the drain can end up. Phosphates in conventional laundry soaps can cause algal blooms that negatively effect ecosystems and marine life. To shop for more eco-friendly detergents, look for labels that indicate a product is readily biodegradable and phosphate-free, and made from plant- and vegetable-based ingredients (instead of petroleum-based).” You can also replace fabric softeners with a cup of white vinegar added to the washer during the rinse cycle. Vinegar will leave your clothes soft because it naturally balances the pH of soap. You can even make your own detergent. Find out how from the video below.

Let’s take a look at your washing machine itself. If you have a top-loading washing machine from before the 2000s, it probably uses twice as much water per load than a newer machine. There’s also a difference between machine styles. Front-loading washing machines (sometimes called "horizontal axis" machines) that boast the Energy Star rating use between 18 and 25 gallons per load, compared to 40 gallons for older machines and top-loading machines. But if you’re not ready to upgrade your machine, you can make a big difference even by switching from hot water to cold water because 90% of the energy that a machine requires is used just to heat the water. Making sure to use the size-load adjuster or only wash with full loads can also make a big difference in the amount of water you use for a cycle.

Your dryer is another big culprit in energy consumption. According to Treehugger, there are upward of 88 million dryers in the U.S. and each one emits more than a ton of carbon dioxide per year. Dryers also cause a lot of wear and tear on your clothes, which themselves require a lot of water and energy to produce. Hanging your clothes out to dry, be it outside in the summer or inside in the winter is a great alternative. Clothes racks come in many styles that can accommodate different space limits as well as physical conditions that could make hanging difficult. And don’t forget that this isn’t an all or nothing system. If you don’t feel like you can commit to hanging all your clothes and towels and sheets, start with the items that take the longest to dry, like jeans and sweatshirts. This can reduce the amount of time that your dryer is consuming energy. Cleaning the lint filter frequently will increase efficiency as well and if your dryer has a moisture sensor, you can set it to shut off the machine when it senses that clothes are dry. Treehugger suggests that if you're going to be using a dryer, the best option is the heat pump, or condensing dryer. It condenses the moisture out of the dryer air, then reheats it, reusing the energy already involved.  

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Now what if you already are a green laundry superstar? You can still make a difference by encouraging your friends, family, and community to make eco-smart choices too. Knowing the stats will help make your argument, but make sure that you attune your encouragement to every individual to have the best success rate. Here are some numbers to keep in mind thanks to Treehugger:

  • 90 percent: Amount of total of energy used by a typical washing machine to heat the water; only 10 percent is used to power the motor.

  • 34 million tons: Amount of carbon dioxide emissions that would be saved if every U.S. household used only cold water for washing clothes--that's nearly 8 percent of the Kyoto target for the U.S.

  • 99 pounds: Amount of carbon dioxide emissions saved per household each year by running only full loads of laundry.

  • 700 pounds: Amount of carbon dioxide emissions saved each year by line-drying your family's laundry. You'd save 75 bucks, too.

  • 7,000 gallons: Amount of water saved per year by a typical front-loading washing machine compared to a top-loading washing machine.

  • 88 percent: Average increase in energy efficiency for a washing machine between 1981 and 2003.

  • 49: Percentage of laundry loads run with warm water in the U.S. 37 percent are run with cold water and 14 percent with hot.

Sources: Treehugger, StopGlobalWarming.org, Ready, Set, Green, Energy Star, Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, U.S. Department of Energy

About the Author
BA Environmental Studies
Kathryn is a curious world-traveller interested in the intersection between nature, culture, history, and people. She has worked for environmental education non-profits and is a Spanish/English interpreter.
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