HOW DOES WASHING OUR CLOTHES AT HOME IMPACT THE ENVIRONMENT?
For most of my life doing laundry was just one of the chores that had to be done. As I was growing up in the former Soviet Union, we didn’t even have washing machines until maybe early 90’s. My mother would handwash clothes with bar soap, then dried them on a balcony and then finally we had to iron them. For some reason I was put in charge of ironing and folding. My dad would put on the radio for me and I patently worked my way through the entire pile of laundry while listening to the old russian tunes. The whole process seemed quite sustainable and required little water and energy, except for maybe the ironing part. A lot has changed since then: now we all have washing machines, tumble dryers, various detergents and additives to improve softness and smell. What we don’t realize though is that the way we do laundry today has a big impact on the environment. As I learned more about this issue, I decided to avoid using the dryer as much as I could and I almost never iron. So now, doing laundry has actually become one of my favorite chores: hanging clothes to dry outside on a sunny day is like a moment of meditation for me, and I absolutely love that incredibly fresh, clean smell of naturally dried clothes.
ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT OF LAUNDRY
- Energy use – did you know that 1/3 of the carbon footprint of a garment lifecycle occurs during the “use phase” through washing, drying and ironing the clothes? Fortunately, the new generation of washing machines are a lot more efficient than before. A new 2017 washer for example uses 70% less energy than it did in 1990’s*! But dryer uses 5 times more energy than washing on an average load! Ironing is not as bad as tumble drying but it still requires significant energy to heat.
- Water use – an average top load washing machine requires about 120 litters (31 gallons) of water*. That’s an equivalent of 80 water bottles (1,5L) which, if you drink 1 per day, would last you for almost 2 and a half months!
- Microplastics – you probably already heard about this problem, brought to light not so long ago. These are tiny particles of plastic (less than 5mm in length) that pollute the environment – air, soil and water. They are particularly present in the marine ecosystem and already entered our food chain from products like fish, sea salt, honey and drinking water. The exact biological effects of microplastics on people and animals are not yet defined. However just knowing that plastics take hundreds of years to degrade and contain chemicals, that may be harmful, makes it quite alarming news. You may be wondering “what does this have to do with laundry?”. It is estimated that 1/3 of all primary microplastic pollution in the oceans comes from washing textiles including clothing! The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that clothing care contributes half a million tonnes of primary microplastics a year. Most of our clothes today (~ 60%) are made from synthetic fabrics which are basically plastics – like polyester, acrylic and nylon (learn more in my post about synthetics). As they are washed, tiny particles are shed away and go into the water systems. Even when the water from our washing machine goes through water treatment centers, some microplastics still “escape” from the cleaning filters and end up either in the rivers and oceans or back in our drinking water*. Here is a quick 3 minute video illustrating this issue in very simple terms:
Luckily, there are several immediate actions we can all take today to make our laundry more sustainable:
- Invest in “green” aka HE (high-efficiency) washer if you can. HE washing machines use between 20% and 66% less water and as little as 20% to 50% of the energy as traditional agitator washers*. This will not only save you money on water and energy bills, but also help reduce the environmental impact of washing.
- Wash less in general and try to always wash full loads or at least 3/4 – this will help save a lot of resources as washing machine uses the same amount of water and energy regardless if you pack it full or just throw in a few t-shirts. Doing 3/4 load or slightly more is ideal because your clothes will wash better if they have a bit of space in-between.
- Wash in cold water and short cycles – it is estimated that about 60% of environmental footprint of laundry comes from heating the water and that washing clothes at 30°C uses 60% less energy than washing at 40°C*! When you wash in cold water, you should also use cold water detergents* to ensure the best results. They are specifically made to work in cold water, so look for the label “for cold-water” next time you are buying detergents. Lastly, washing in cold water actually preserves colors and structure of your clothes longer and doesn’t cause that surprising shrinkage of your favorite sweater!
- Hand wash small stains if possible instead of washing the entire garment, or if it’s really hard to remove, use a stain removal treatment before putting it in the washing machine to avoid a re-washing.
- Minimize use of dryers – you can actually save around 10% of your clothes total carbon footprint if you don’t use a dryer. Do line drying instead, especially if you live in a house or if you have a decent size balcony, there is no excuse! I honestly find a great pleasure in hanging clothes outside especially on a nice sunny day. And instead of using plastic clothes pegs, please please go for the wooden ones! This will reduce the plastic waste of your household. You can also get creative to make them look “new again” when they get old. For example, paint them in bright colors and write something positive on them 🙂
- The above steps also help reduce the release of microplastics! According to some estimates, washing your clothes in a 30-minute 15˚C wash cycle can reduce the amount of microfibers released by 30% compare to a standard 85-minute 40˚C cycle*, based on a typical home laundering. Dryers can also be a bit harsh on the clothes especially synthetics and increase plastic shedding during the next wash. You can also use special laundry bags designed to stop microfibers pollution from washing like GuppyFriend bag for example, or install an innovative filtration system like Xeros’ XFiltra which is compatible with any home washing machine.
- Avoid ironing – it might not be as bad as tumble drying, but ironing also takes up energy to keep it hot. And not that many clothes even require ironing, so be mindful of that. Of course some clothes may wrinkle more than others, but here are some tricks to avoid clothing wrinkles: for example, you can hang them on a hanger first and then on a clothes line to dry (like shirts or dresses), but remember sweaters should be always dried lying flat, otherwise they will stretch and may lose its shape when hanging wet. If you end up using a dryer after all, then run a low temperature cycle, remove clothes quickly and hang immediately on a hanger – this will ensure they don’t wrinkle and you don’t have to iron them!