How we make laundry clean and green

clothes hanging out to dry
CC BY 2.0 Bruce Guenter

In this installment of Town and Country, an epistolary-style discussion of modern green living, TreeHuggers Katherine and Margaret talk laundry. In NYC, Margaret uses the laundromat, while in rural Ontario, Katherine can’t live washing without her machine.

Katherine: My least-disliked household chore

If I had to choose one household appliance that I couldn’t live without, it would be the washing machine. With two school-aged kids, an infant in cloth diapers, and husband who works out and sweats like a maniac, there is a constant stream of clothes that need washing.

I detoxified my laundry routine four years ago, when I first learned about all the bad chemicals and fragrances in conventional laundry soap and also realized that cold water does just as effective a job at cleaning as hot water does (except in the case of diapers).

The toughest change for me was realizing that the smell most commonly associated with clean laundry – like the smell of fabric softener that comes out of dryer vents as you walk past houses – is actually the opposite of clean. It really means you’re inhaling harmful VOCs.

Truly clean clothes smell like nothing but clothes, along with some fresh air. It can be a bit disorienting at first. Rather than identifying my children’s clean clothes by smell, I go by touch. If they are slightly stiff and crispy-looking, that means they have recently been hung out to dry and therefore are clean.

Hanging laundry has many benefits. You don’t have to use the dryer, which saves significantly on electricity. It keeps clothes in much better condition. Think about the lint trap; that’s really just bits of your clothing, which weaken with every drying session. Better to treat them kindly by hanging to dry. They will last longer.

Hang-drying is fast, too. When I hang clothes on a summer morning, they dry by mid-afternoon. In the winter, I hang them in the evening on a rack inside the house, and they are dry by morning; they also help humidify the air in the room.

The sun does a wonderful job at bleaching the cloth diapers, better than any chemical bleach could ever do. The diapers come inside looking new each time.

When it comes to detergent, I choose all-natural ingredients and minimal packaging. Even if a company preaches a commitment to the environment, I avoid all detergents in thick plastic bottles. My current favourite is pure laundry soap flakes from The Soap Works in Toronto, which comes in a paper bag.

Choosing when to wash is an ongoing challenge. I think our clean-obsessed society has a tendency to wash clothes constantly, even when they don’t really need it. I try to spot-wash my kids’ clothes as much as possible to minimize the number of loads each week and am constantly assessing whether they can get another day’s wear out of it.

Margaret: Sharing economy welcome

While Katherine can’t live without her own washing machine, I haven’t lived with one since I moved out of my parent’s home to go to college. From the communal dorm laundry room I used then to the neighborhood laundromat that I use now, toting my laundry back and fourth is a regular part of my life. Although it's unthinkable to many, it's really not a big deal.

There’s a sharing economy argument to make for communal laundromats. Think of all the raw materials and energy it takes to manufacture a washer and dryer, and then ship them to each house or apartment. Then there’s all the individual trips the repair person has to make if something breaks down. And also think of all the time the washer and dryer in a private home sits unused, passively blinking and probably contributing to the ghost energy use of the house. On the other hand, communal washing facilities could allow more people to get their clothes washed with fewer total machines.

To be fair to anyone who loves their laundry machines, I don’t need to do laundry very often. And in a city like New York, an apartment with its own washer/dryer usually comes with a mark-up on the rent. I’m also glad I never have to deal with having the machines break down. If one washer is out of order I just use the next one over.

In my little household of two people, we only do laundry about every three weeks. There are a few little things I do to cut down of the frequency of laundry days. I hand-wash some items at home, which extends the life of things like lingerie. I’m am also very aggressive about spot-cleaning. If there’s a small spill of some type on a garment, cleaning it right alway not only lowers the chance of a permanent stain but also may prevent an otherwise clean item from going in the laundry bag.

Many New Yorkers use drop-off laundry services, but I prefer to do the laundry myself. Like Katherine, I use a fragrance-free detergent, and wash everything on a cold cycle. It would be nice to line-dry everything, but in my small apartment that wouldn’t be particularly realistic. But I do separate out a big portion of delicates and workout clothes, which does make them last longer as Katherine also mentions. Plus, a smaller batch of sheets and towels dry faster in the machine, saving both energy and money.

As a chore, I find doing the laundry pretty satisfying. I particularly like the wide folding tables at our laundromat, which are a better height and size for the task than anywhere in my apartment. The best part is coming home with neatly folded stacks of laundry and putting everything back in its place.

How we make laundry clean and green
TreeHuggers Katherine and Margaret talk laundry.

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