Today, you made the first purchase to your sustainable wardrobe. You feel badass in your outfit and you made the right purchase for the environment. Rock on! After a few wears, you decide it’s time for wash. You throw it in the wash, pop in the detergent and walk away. What can go wrong?
Levi Strauss found that 37% of their jeans energy carbon footprint and 23% of overall water use was dedicated to the laundry process [ref].
Can washing and drying clothes really be that harmful to the environment?
In the United States, laundry accounts for:
- 847,445 million gallons of water
- 241 thousand GWh of electricity consumption
- 179 million metric tons of CO2-e emissions 
Problem One: Frequency
Frequency refers to the amount of loads washed per week.
Our household is just the two of us, and we go through two main loads bi-weekly. One for clothes and another for towels and household linens. Audrey is better than me and for awhile, I was throwing my t-shirts in the hamper after every use. But why?
Don’t get me wrong, we need to wash our clothes and especially our underwear and socks. However, do we really need to wash our jeans, shirts or sweaters after every use? If you don’t sweat in it, why wash it? :)
This might be a little extreme but the point being, if we want to be a sustainable consumer, we need to pay attention to the entire life-cycle of a product. Our laundry habits are part of that cycle.
Problem Two: Water
We need water to clean our clothes and currently, we cannot get around that. However, we can find ways to conserve as much as possible. Frequency is part of that puzzle but what else?
Only washing your clothes when you have a full load saves a ton of water. The same applies with your dishwasher. If you need to use the water, make it count! The next best step for water conservation comes with a dollar tag. Front-load washing machines can save on average 7,000 gallons of water per year compared to a top-load . Most people can’t just go out and buy a new machine but next time you are in the market, look for a front-load. You will save money over the long run as well!
Problem Three: Energy
The biggest part of our laundry carbon footprint comes from energy. It is also the place where we can actively become more green in our practices.
The diagram below outlines the distribution of energy used at every stage in the laundry process .
The rule of thumb is; the more heat an appliance needs, the more energy it takes to heat that appliance. Drying your clothes is an obvious criminal. We can solve this problem by getting a little creative and looking back to the days before the dryer.
Before the dryer, people used a clothesline and many people still do. This might seem foreign, as some people have always had a dryer. Why do more work when modern technology can do it for you?
A household running a dryer 200 times a year could save nearly half a ton of CO2e by switching to a clothes rack or washing line .
If you can switch to clothesline drying completely, do it! However, for most people, this is a little excessive. Many people don’t see the sun 200 days a year. In the Pacific Northwest, we get lucky to have 150 days of sun.
The point being, when the sun is out, make the effort to dry your clothes outside. You can use an indoor drying rack for the days that lack sun but the temperature is warm enough. The more you do, the better it is for the environment!
Keeping your clothes out of the dryer is also beneficial for the garments health. All the lint you remove from the dryer is from your clothes. "That is why my jeans are fading."
For those rainy months, using a dryer is almost a necessity and we get that. Below are a few tips if you can afford the effort.
- Drying your clothes produces useful heat. Most older buildings pump that useful heat outside. During the cold months, if you can keep that heat in your home, it can act as a personal heater and save you on your electric usage, and bill.
- When purchasing a new appliance look for washers (yes washers) with a good spin cycle. Our washer has a great spin cycle and most of our clothes are damp when they come out of the wash. This makes drying them much quicker and in-turn uses less energy.
- If you dryer has a moisture sensor, turn it on. The dryer will turn off when it senses the clothes are dry. Modern technology has its benefits!
Problem Three Extended: Energy and Hot Water
From the energy consumption diagram above, you might have missed the 16% attribution to heating water. This 16% of energy can be easily saved by simply switching to cold water washes. For example, switching to cold water, you can save roughly 100g of carbon emissions per wash or 34 million tons per year for the entire United States [2, 3].
Hot water is used to help soap activate in the cleaning process and remove those hard stains. However, modern laundry detergents work great at low temperatures and it is usually not recommended to use hot water. Hot water can also shrink and fade colors.
0.6 kg CO2e washed at 30°C, dried on clothesline
0.7 kg CO2e washed at 40°C, dried on clothesline
2.4 kg CO2e washed at 40°C, tumble-dried in a vented dryer
If you must use warm water, look to see if your machine has an eco-warm setting.
If you have never used any of these energy and water savings techniques, don’t get overwhelmed. Start by using cold water and be happy with that. You just saved 100g of carbon emissions! At Soluna Collective, we are not perfect and never claim to be. We have our days where the dryer is our best friend. However, we pledge to improve everyday and make this planet a better place, one step at a time. #LetsFightTogether
We would like to leave you with a passage from a study done by Duke University.
"If Americans adopted European and Asian standards, calling for the use of front load washer and dryers, washing in cold water only and hanging clothes to dry half the time, the environmental and economic benefits would be drastic. In fact, it would be equivalent to removing 12.1% of passenger cars of roads in the United States or taking 23 coal plants off the grid. In addition, more than 60% of water consumption (512 billion gallons) used while laundering could be reduced through these strategies" .
Bonus Round: The waste
Dryer sheets are not a necessity and create the biggest amount of waste in the laundry process. Most people use a dryer sheet approximately once before they throw it away. For us, eliminating dryer sheets was the first step in the sustainable laundry process. In our drying process, we don’t use any added scent and the only noticeable difference is the lack of a smell. For the people who love a fresh scent, try a scented wool dryer ball. You can even customize the smell with any essential oils.