Washing laundry is not exactly the most eco-friendly activity. It involves copious volumes of freshwater and a variety of synthetic chemicals – from detergents and softeners to dryer sheets and bleach – all of which wash down the drain and straight into lakes and rivers. Conventional detergents contain a myriad of chemicals including surfactants, optical brighteners, softeners, bleaches and artificial fragrances. They leave chemical residues on clothes, that we absorb through our skin and lungs, leading to allergies, skin infections, respiratory trouble, even cancer.
Regular detergents also contain phosphates which remove hard water minerals like calcium and magnesium and improve the efficiency of the product. Phosphates, though, are a chemical implicated by the Law of Environment Protection in India (1989) in the pollution of water bodies by eutrophication. Despite that, its usage is on the rise. When sewage water containing detergent residues flows into water bodies, the phosphorus acts as a fertiliser and encourages the growth of algae. This cuts off the oxygen supply and creates dead zones for fish. Over time, phosphate buildup causes frothing and foul odour and destroys the water body.
Here’s how you can make your laundry a little greener and cut your carbon footprint:
Invest in an efficient washing machine
A washing machine is a long-term investment so it is important to buy one that’s energy-efficient while also helping you save water. A semi-automatic washing machine uses approximately 120 litres of water per wash. Compared to this, per wash, a fully automatic top-loading machine uses 140 litres while a front-loading one uses just 60 litres. Many brands today have eco-options for conserving water and electricity so get better acquainted with your appliance and use these options to your advantage.
Wash only full loads
Contrary to popular belief, most washing machines use the same amount of electricity and water for partial loads and full loads. So, consolidate your loads before running your machine. However, washing machines differ in their optimum capacity and packing in too many clothes at once will only stress your machine. It will also prevent the clothes from moving around, reducing the effectiveness of the wash. It is important, therefore, to consult your machine’s load-weight guide to understand its optimum capacity so you can improve the efficiency of your laundry schedule.
Reduce the frequency of washing
Before you throw a garment in the wash, examine it carefully. Is it heavily soiled or can it do with a quick soak and rinse? Can it be worn again before it is washed? Remember that every time you wash your clothes, you’re adding to their wear-and-tear. Washing fades fabric, ages and shrinks it. So the less you wash, the longer your clothes last, and the more energy and water you save. Identify some fabrics, such as towels and jeans that can be used multiple times before being washed. Similarly, learn what sorts of garments can be cleaned by air-drying. The key is to run the machine only when you really have to.
Choose the right wash cycles
The amount of water and energy used by a washing machine is greatly influenced by the setting you choose. One 2019 study found surprising evidence that the ‘delicate’ wash cycle uses about twice as much water as other settings and releases an average of 800,000 more plastic microfibres than lower-water volume settings. The study also revealed that washing clothes in cold water with shorter wash cycles is not only better for the environment, but it can help keep clothes lasting longer.
Limit the synthetics
As we mentioned here, synthetic fabrics shed tiny plastic fibres with every wash. These microscopic strands flow freely through the filters of our washing machines and through sewage treatment plants, ending up in aquatic environments where they act as carriers of pollution. They also tend to get eaten up by marine creatures, accumulating in their bodies over time and moving up the food chain. In fact, plastic pollution from laundry washing has been named the greatest source of ocean plastic soup. To cut down your microplastic footprint, consider washing synthetic fabrics such as polyester and nylon only when they get really dirty. You could also choose to use a fabric bag to contain synthetic clothes, thus minimising friction with other garments and leading to increased shedding.
Use an eco-friendly detergent
One of the most impactful ways to green up your laundry is by shifting to cleaning products that are free of harsh chemical surfactants, phosphates, bleach and artificial fragrances. Not only will such a product keep your body safe from toxic substances, but it will also help your clothes last longer and create less pollution. The Better Home laundry detergent was designed keeping this mind. It is made with naturally-derived surfactants and is free of acid, phosphates, bleach and other ingredients that are harmful to aquatic organisms. It is also biodegradable in aerobic and anaerobic environments and easily treated by sewage treatment plants. Since it is free of polluting chemicals, the greywater from laundry washing can be safely repurposed in the garden.
Treat stains beforehand
Soak heavily soiled items before washing and scrub dirt and stains with a bar of soap before adding the clothes to the machine. It might use up some water but it’s better than having to re-wash a garment because the stains didn’t wash off.
Wear fewer whites
The charm of a classic white is timeless and there are few pieces of clothing that can compete with crisp white. However, in the cleaning department, whites are a bane since they show dirt and stains more readily than darker coloured fabrics. They require an army of products to keep them looking fresh and spotless – from optical brighteners to bleach and bluing agents. While the use of bleach (like phosphates) is lower in North America and Europe, manufacturers continue to add bleach to detergents sold in the Middle East, Asia and Africa so they can make whitening and hygiene claims.