Clean Clothes, Happier Planet
Although I don’t long for the days of beating clothes against a rock in the river, I do think it would be prudent for us to practice more conscientious laundry methods. In terms of water usage, a washing machine uses 40-80 gallons of water per load; in terms of power, a clothes dryer uses 1800 to 5000 kilowatts. According to laundrylist.org, if all Americans would use the clothesline or wooden drying racks, the savings would be enough to close several power plants. Add to that the maelstrom of synthetic fragrance and other assorted toxic chemicals from laundry products entering the waste stream and our affecting our indoor air quality, and it seems obvious that the culture of laundry is in need of a green makeover. What can you do to help? Following is a collection of simple, smart tips for reducing water usage, conserving energy, and promoting a toxic-free environment.
The use of electricity- and water-usage varies from machine to machine, but is also affected by the way the machine is used. According to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, about 70 to 90 percent of the energy used by a washing machine goes towards heating the water, so washers that use less hot water also use less energy.
Many of today’s conventional washing machines use about 40 gallons of water for a complete wash cycle. Large capacity resource-efficient models use less than 25 gallons per cycle; small and medium-sized models may even use less than 10. All front loaders and many of the higher-efficiency top-loaders feature advanced electronic controls to adjust the water level automatically according to the size of the load. For a given temperature cycle, energy use is almost directly proportional to hot water use. The lowest setting may use just half as much water as the highest.
Next: 9 tips for washing
- Wash one large load instead of two medium loads (though don’t overload your machine). Check your machine’s manual for load capacity in pounds, then weigh out a few loads of laundry to get a sense of how much laundry your machine can handle.
- Adjust water level to the lowest practical setting.
- Use the shortest cycle needed.
- Avoid using too much detergent to eliminate the need for extra rinse, it’s also better for your clothes.
- Wash and rinse temperatures have a dramatic impact on overall energy use; a hot water wash with warm rinse costs 5 to 10 times more than a cold wash and rinse.
- Turn down the thermostat on your water heater. A setting of 120 F is adequate for most home needs. By reducing your hot water temperature, you will save energy with either hot or warm wash cycles.
- The temperature of the rinse water does not affect cleaning, so always set the washing machine on cold water rinse.
- Pre-soak, especially dirty clothes–by pre-soaking heavily soiled clothes, a cooler wash temperature may be fine.
- Experiment with different laundry detergents to find one that works well with cooler water.
Next: 10 tips for drying
Meanwhile, dryers are generally the most energy-intensive appliance in the house, so it pays to use them efficiently. Hang drying your clothes instead of using the dryer can save 700 pounds of C02 a year, but line-drying is not only impractical for some, in some communities it is not even legal. (Hello?!) If you can’t line dry, try to follow these tips.
- If your dryer has a setting for auto-dry, be sure to use it instead of the timer, to avoid wasting energy (and overdrying, which can cause shrinkage, generate static electricity, and shorten the life of your clothes).
- Faster spin speeds can result in better water extraction and thus reduce the energy required for drying. Mechanical water extraction by spinning is much more efficient than thermal extraction (heating clothes in a dryer).
- When drying, separate your clothes and dry similar types of clothes together. Lightweight synthetics, for example, dry much more quickly than bath towels and natural fiber clothes.
- Don’t over-dry clothes. Take clothes out while they are still slightly damp to reduce the need for ironing–another big energy user.
- If your dryer has a setting for auto-dry, use it.
- Don’t add wet items to a load that is already partially dried.
- Dry two or more loads in succession, taking advantage of the heat still in the dryer from the first load.
- Clean the dryer filter after each use. A clogged filter will restrict flow and reduce dryer performance.
- Dry full loads when possible, but be careful not to overfill the dryer. Drying small loads wastes energy. Air should be able to circulate freely around the drying clothes.
- Check the outside dryer exhaust vent. Make sure it is clean and that the flapper on the outside hood opens and closes freely.
Next: What to look for in laundry products
Conventional laundry products contain a range of chemicals that trigger skin and eye irritation, cause allergic reactions and asthma, damage the environment, and may have harmful long-term effects. Scientists suspect that some of these chemicals cause cancer; others disrupt the endocrine system and interfere with the reproductive health of both humans and wildlife. But most of these chemicals haven’t been tested for their long-term effects on humans. Look for these natural components in your green laundry products.
- Surfactants made from corn, coconut, and soy create gentle sudsing action and have much less impact on the environment and human health than the most commonly used surfactants, alkyl phenol ethoxylates (APEs), which are classified as endocrine disruptors.
- Instead of chlorine, look for hydrogen peroxide, which breaks down into water and oxygen, or sodium percarbonate, made by combining hydrogen peroxide with the nontoxic mineral sodium carbonate–they both brighten whites as effectively as chlorine. Chlorine irritates the lungs, eyes, and mucous membranes. Even at very low concentrations, bleach can inspire respiratory disorders, asthma attacks, and even neurological and behavioral effects.
- Seek products which use natural essential oils and citrus oils. The chemicals that give non-natural laundry detergents, fabric softeners, and dryer sheets their “fresh” scent are synthesized from petroleum and can irritate skin, cause allergic reactions, trigger asthma, and harm the nervous system. Some ingredients used in fragrances are also known carcinogens and contain phthalates.
- Instead of dryer sheets, use wash-cycle natural fabric softeners which contain vegetable-based softeners and essential oils to make clothes soft and fragrant. Some of the chemicals used in conventional dryer sheets (chloroform, camphor, and ethyl acetate, for instance) appear on the EPA’s Hazardous Waste list and can cause nervous system disorders. And because dryer sheets enter the scene after the rinse cycle, the chemicals permeate clothing, sheets, and towels, meaning we’re exposed to them for long periods of time.
Next: Natural stain removers
I know people who travel with a portable stain pen for disasters, but this doens’t hae to be the way. Even something as simple as Ivory soap works well for stains. It’s mild and it doesn’t contain moisturizers, deodorants, and other unnecessary additives. Other mild white bar soaps will work, too. For stain removal, plain old soap works magic. Here’s how:
1. Dampen the stained garment with cold water.
2. Rub a bar of Ivory soap directly into the stain, then rinse.
3. If that doesn’t remove the stain, rub Ivory soap on the stain again, and then soak the fabric for 30 minutes or so in cold water with a bit of powdered detergent dissolved in it. (If you forget and leave stuff soaking longer, it doesn’t really matter; you won’t hurt the fabric.) Rinse.
4. If that still doesn’t work, rub more bar soap into the stain, scrub it with a scrub brush (taking care not to damage the fabric), and rinse.
5. If a second scrubbing attempt doesn’t remove the stain, blot it gently with some color-safe bleach (oxygen-bleach, not chlorine bleach) diluted with water, then rinse with clean water to remove all of the bleach.
- For coffee and tea stains, get to it with soap and water as soon as possible.
- For fruit stains, apply lemon juice, if that doesn’t work, then try the bar soap method.
- For oil and grease, sprinkle cornstarch or baking soda on the stain, then place the garment, stain side down, on a large rag on top of an ironing board. Iron with a hot iron on the wrong side of the stain. Most oil and grease stains will come out.
- For rust stains, soak fabric spotted with brown rust stains (which sometimes come from hard water) in a solution of 1 part lemon juice and 1 part water for at least 30 minutes. Do not use chlorine bleach on rust stains.