I don’t do laundry every day, but many households do. So we’ll break this down into Washing, Drying, Dry Cleaning, and related Recycling.
WASHING. For Everyday Sustainable clothes washing, I do the following:
- Wash in cold water. According to the US Dept of Energy, “About 90% of the energy used for washing clothes is for heating the water.” What a waste. And apparently most detergents are just fine in cold water. Also, less wear on your clothes than being washed in hot water. Try dialing it back to a warm wash/cold rinse (from hot/warm) if you’ve got some extra dirty clothes. Seventh Generation has a Get Out of Hot Water Pledge and a calculator to see your $ and CO2 savings.
- Use a phosphate-free detergent: Seventh Generation’s Natural 2X Concentrate Laundry Liquid. Phosphates “allow algae in the water to grow faster than would naturally occur, turning clear lakes and rivers green and cloudy.” This can affect the quality of water for drinking and in the long run can compromise lakes and other bodies of water.
- It’s also a concentrated 2X detergent, which gives you the same effectiveness for half the amount. This means savings in water in the detergent, packaging and transportation, and lower impact on landfill. Finding 2X detergent should be easy these days since Wal-Mart announced last fall that by May 2008 they would only carry concentrated liquid detergent.
- Air dry delicate and easy-to-dry clothes (like fleece, light cotton and linen) and stuff I don’t want to shrink in the bathroom and bedroom. I hang from regular hangars, inflatable hangars, and for shirts/sweaters I don’t want to stretch on a hangar, I place it on a pop-open mesh dryer or just lay it out on the bed. (I just found this serious drying rack online. Wow!)
- Clean the lint out from the dryers, always, before and after doing a load. This not only helps to keep the drying process efficient, but does force you to see how much the dryer eats up your clothes and towels.
- Dry similar-weight clothes together. Jeans with jeans, but not with cotton button down shirts.
- Try not to let the dryer cool down between loads.
- Finally, what I REALLY want is to dry my clothes on a clothesline. When I lived in Oakland, I often hung my clothes and sheets to dry outside, even though we had a dryer in the house. I loved sleeping on the sun-dried sheets; they smelled and felt so good. I was surprised to learn that clotheslines are forbidden by many homeowner associations, though some are challenging that rule. Unfortunately, I live now in an apartment building with no room for a clothesline. So for now, I’ve signed up for the Project Laundry List which supports solar dryer advocates, aka clothesline activists.
DRY CLEANING. Only twice have I regretted my decision to hand-wash something that was labeled “Dry Clean Only.” I’m not sure why so many things say that. I try not to buy things that are high-maintenance in that way. But on occasion I have to. Frankly, I’m often at a loss about what is the best option. I just know that most dry cleaners use perc as a solvent, and it’s bad for everyone involved. But what’s a better option?
Coop America has a helpful article that covers the various options. Good options:
- Professional wet cleaning “is free of VOCs, it eliminates health and safety risks, as well as environmental risks associated with traditional dry cleaning,” and “just about every garment that can be dry cleaned can be wet cleaned.”
- “Liquid carbon dioxide cleaning is a method that uses pressurized liquid CO2 in place of perc, in combination with other cleaning agents.” A major barrier in making this an accessible option is that the equipment is very expensive, so adoption is low.
- “Hydrocarbon cleaning methods are not green at all. Hydrocarbon is a petroleum-based solvent and carries all the environmental concerns of petroleum, including the fact that it’s a major source of greenhouse gases.” However, “some hydrocarbon cleaners claim their methods are “organic”.
- The GreenEarth method replaces perc with a silicone based solvent called siloxane or D-5 which may be a carcinogen.
- Cleaners using Solvair machines–which use the toxin glycol ether as a solvent–may call themselves liquid CO2 cleaners. This is misleading because it’s not the same as the process described above.
No matter what kind of drycleaning method, you’re likely to end up with these recyclables. DO NOT THROW THEM OUT.
- Dry Cleaning Plastic Cover. These make great garbage bags! Take the top end of the bag — where the hole is where the hangers go through — and tie a big knot. Make sure there are no holes in the bag. Turn it upside down, and voila, you have a garbage bag. (It fits my 21 qt wastebasket beautifully.)
- Wire Hangers. Your dry cleaner will be happy to recycle them for you, since the hangars are a big expense. (By the way, EcoHanger is made from 100% recycled paper and 100% recyclable and funds itself with the ads printed on it. But are people really going to read the ad? And isn’t it just creating another kind of waste since it’s proven to be stronger than wire hangers?)
- Collar Butterfly Support. Those little plastic things on shirts to keep the collar from crushing. Take these back to your dry cleaner, too. My guy said he was happy to have them.