Laundry And The Environment: Part One, The Washing Machine

Laundry is one of the hidden impacts on the environment. It is easy to understand how hotel laundry has big impact, because of scale and volume. However, when you think about how much laundry you do at home, over the course of a week, year, decade, lifetime, your choices have huge impact as well.

Laundry is one of the hidden impacts on the environment.  But it is also in plain sight. We see the signs at hotels, advising us of the impact on natural resources, such as water, and instructions to leave the towels hung if you will use them again.  It is easy to understand how hotel laundry has big impact, because of scale and volume. However, when you think about how much laundry you do at home, over the course of a week, year, decade, lifetime, your choices have huge impact as well.

ISSUE –   Water Use: Traditional top load machines can use up to 25 gallons of water per load.  Also, the old machines add water based on set measurements – small, medium, large load.

THE FIX – Front Load Machine: when it comes time to replace your machine, we suggest a front load machine will use between 6-10 gallons.  Also, the newer machines have load sensors, which calculate the amount of water needed based on the weight of material in the drum.

ISSUE – Carbon Footprint:  Traditionally, detergents needed hot water in order to dissolve and work properly.  Running 25 gallons of hot water through a conventional machine means your hot water tank has to provide that hot water, every time you do a load.  Most hot water tanks run on gas, and keeping that water hot for laundry not only costs you money, but also increases your carbon footprint.

THE FIX-  Cold Water:  Wash with cold water whenever possible.  These days, detergent is made to be effective at cooler temperatures and hot water may even reduce the effectiveness of detergent.   As a note, cold water does not sanitize. If you are washing items that require sanitization, such as cloth diapers, you should adhere to the washing instructions and use the sanitize setting on your washer.

ISSUE – Immediate Environmental Impact:  Conventional detergents contain phosphates which build up in the environment and can create algae blooms in water.   These algae blooms eat up the oxygen that other life forms need to survive. This continual oxygen depletion contributes to the slow death of freshwater ecosystems.  Another ingredient in conventional detergents in petroleum based surfactants. Surfactants in detergents are toxic to aquatic life, and, as they breakdown, other toxic chemicals are released.  Worst of all, surfactants break down the mucus layer that coats fish, protecting them from parasites and bacteria. Without this protective barrier, fish are more susceptible to illness and disease.  Surfactants in freshwater also affect water surface tension, thus making it easier for aquatic life to absorb pesticides, phenols, and other toxic pollutants. Many of these pollutants are bio-accumulative, which means they linger and accumulate in the environment, and can make their way up the food chain.  In addition to the obvious health impacts and environmental issues, the use of petroleum surfactants leads to the use of a non-renewable resource.

THE FIX – Plant based cleansers:  Biosurfactants use plant based compounds produced by living cells.  They biodegrade and, due to their effectiveness, you need only use a little.  Additionally, biosurfactants come from renewable resources.

What you can do:

  • Keep your appliances in good repair for maximum efficiency (remember, buying new appliances has carbon impact from the manufacturing process!)
  • When replacing machines, opt for high efficiency, front load washers with weight sensors
  • Wash with cold water
  • Used plant based cleaning products
  • Wear your clothes more than once between washes.

To step up your laundry game, please read our article on how to maximize dryer efficiency and why you should line dry your laundry.