Fresh from the Wash: How to Green your Laundry Routine

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By Roxy Rowton

On April 22, the world will commemorate the annual celebration of Earth Day. In keeping with the observation of Earth Day and our regular April series Fresh from the Wash, this month the fashion column explores how to green the laundry routine.

The average laundry routine generally gets accomplished without too much hoopla. Although it is certainly not a favorable pastime for most, it’s a task that gets done weekly in most households. While the laundry routine is a task which is vital and necessary for optimal health and well-being, it can also be quite harmful to the environment and to humans.

The average laundry routine uses lots of water, energy, detergent and other harmful compounds. It can also cause tiny particles from our garments to shed into community water supplies. All the detergents and products used during washing end up in the community sewer treatment plant. In turn, the sewer treatment plant has to use more water, energy and chemicals to treat and purify the water.

The good news is – switching the laundry routine to make it greener can be relatively simple.

Wear More, Wash Less

While it may seem contradictory to recommend washing household laundry less frequently, in reality, most Americans over-wash clothing. Consumer Reports states the average American family does about 300 loads of laundry per year. Unless someone in the household has a contagious illness, there is probably no need for most garments to be washed after just one wearing. Some garments (socks, underclothing and gym apparel) have to be washed after every wearing. Other garments, such as bottoms and tops, may be worn several times before laundering.

How much energy and money might we save by simply by washing fuller loads? Tree Hugger estimates that 99 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions could be saved per household each year by washing with full loads. By wearing our clothes a few more times before laundering and by laundering full but fewer loads, consumption of valuable resources especially energy and water are reduced. This, in turn, lowers the average American family’s energy and water bill.

Use Safer and Greener Laundry Products

Many laundry products contain toxins that have harmful impacts on the environment, as well as, members of the household. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), many of the laundry products available in the U.S. market receive a failing grade. There is evidence that many of the common household products used for laundering can worsen or cause asthma. Common laundry products are often loaded with allergens and irritants. While it can be overwhelming to know which laundry products are safer, healthier and greener, the EWG produces a Guide to Healthy Living to assist consumers choose products free from chemicals of concern. Look for the EWG’s Verified Mark on the packaging of laundering products, which signifies products made from the safest ingredients.

Always read labels and follow the recommended amount of detergent when washing garments. Too much detergent can leave garments less clean.

Switch to the Cold Wash

According to EnergyStar, 90% of the energy of a washing machine is generated when using the hot water setting. In other words, the hot wash cycle gobbles energy. Most modern washing machines and detergents are formulated to work well in cold temperatures for all but the dirtiest loads. (Hot water does kill bacteria and germs.) Unless a member of the household has a contagious illness, dial down the setting to a warm cycle; it can cut energy use in half. The cold cycle can reduce energy even further. Opting for the cold wash cycle will clean garments and prevent fading of colors and preserve fabrics.

Dry Less and Lower the Setting

The tumble dryer is the biggest offender in the consumption of energy during the laundry routine. According to the Natural Resource Defense Council, major household appliance such as washing machines, air conditioners, dishwashers, have become more energy efficient. However, the tumble dryer’s energy efficiency standards have remained essentially unchanged. The NRDC reports the tumble dryer guzzles as much energy as the refrigerator, dishwasher and washing machine combined.

There are a few things one can do during the laundry routine to reduce energy and dry clothes more efficiently. Those include clean the lint screen after every load, and use the lowest heat cycle and a shorter dryer cycle.

There is a significant amount of scientific evidence that substantiates the irreparable damage to clothing by the use of a tumble dryer. The high heat from the tumble dryer fades the color of fabrics, shrinks garments and breaks down clothing fibers. The proof is in the lint. When a garment is placed into the tumble dryer, it causes microscopic damage to the fabric. Microscopic damage is often undetectable to the eye; check out the lint tray to see the collective damage.

The tumble dryer does save time, but it is at a cost to our clothing. To balance convenience of time and protection of garments, use a shorter time cycle and a lower heat setting.

Switch to Air Drying

Air drying is a greener and much gentler option for your clothes. Air drying preserves fiber, fit, color and elasticity. Any garment that can be tumble-dried can also be air-dried on a drying rack or clothesline. Actually, hanging laundry outdoors on a clothesline can be a healthy alternative, as sunlight’s UV rays kill bacterial and viruses.

There are two methods of air drying: line drying and flat drying. Line drying is simply hanging clothes to dry, whether that is draped over a line, suspended on a line with clothespins or arranged on a hanger. Some clothing, such as knits and heavier garments, can’t take the tension on the fibers by hanging, especially while soaking wet. These types of clothing items should lay flat to dry, arranged in their natural shape.

Tree Hugger estimates that the average American family could save $75 a year by line-drying.

Think Twice Before Dry Cleaning

Conventional dry-cleaning routinely relies on hazardous chemicals to get clothing clean. The most common dry cleaning solvent is perchloroethylene. Often referred to as perc, it is a known carcinogen and an environmental contaminant. Thankfully, many dry cleaners are switching to greener and healthier solvents. Hydrocarbons and liquid silicone are safer than perchloroethylene; the greenest alternative is “professional wet cleaning” which uses non-toxic soap and water. Speak with your local dry cleaner to ask which solvents are used in cleaning your clothing.

Purchasing clothing that does not require dry cleaning greatly reduces the amount of garments laundered by conventional dry cleaning. Recognize many garments labeled dry cleaning such as silk, cashmere, merino wool and lambswool can be safely hand-washed or machine-washed on the delicate cycle.

One Final Note

More tips for creating a greener and healthier laundry routine: Most commercial distilled vinegars contain 5% acetic acid and have a pH balance of almost 2.4. Most laundry detergents have a pH balance between 8 and 10. Vinegar helps neutralize the pH, washes out suds, as well as, fluffs and softens clothing.

Reuseable wool dryer balls are natural fabric softeners, stave off static, prevent wrinkles and reduce drying time.

Common household ingredients such as hydrogen peroxide, lemon, baking soda, denatured alcohol and dishwashing soap can remove stains if treated immediately.

Roxy L. Rowton has spent three decades assisting women transform their wardrobe from a random assortment of garments into a curated collection of functionality and individuality. She shares her expertise on the Fashion Files at Prince William Living and “build a better wardrobe” blog at everydayrefinement.com.

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