6 Ways to Clean Up Your Laundry Routine

We're extremely fortunate to be able to conveniently wash and dry our clothes. But with this convenience, there comes a huge cost. Our laundry routines contribute to the pollution of our air, of our water and oceans, and of our bodies. The energy used to wash and dry our clothes only further contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and the amount of water used just for one load is insane.

My own laundry routine was something I never thought twice about a few years back. But the more I learned about my impact, the more I began to slowly make changes that were within my reach. 

While washing our clothes in a stream completely off the grid is not within reach for most of us, here are six other ways you can lower your laundry routine's environmental impact.

Swap your laundry detergent for fewer chemicals

Use up what you have left of those pods and blue-liquids because it's time to swap your mountain spring meadow detergent for something less toxic. Major commercial detergents can contain ingredients that are not only harmful to you, but to our environment.

Most chemicals used in detergents (even those deemed more natural) are harmful if swallowed, and eye, skin, and respiratory irritants. However, some of these chemicals are also hormone disruptors, carcinogenic (cancer-causing), and/or mutagenic (genetic defect causing).

When we wash with these detergents, the chemicals end in our waterways (when your washer drains) and in our air (through dryer vents), and can buildup or bioaccumulate to cause significant damage to our environment. Some are known to be extremely toxic to aquatic life and can cause eutrophication (excess nutrients leading to algal blooms, dead zones, and more).

Some major chemicals and laundry ingredients to steer clear from are: Sodium Laureth Sulfate/ Sodium Lauryl Ether Sulfate (SLES); Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS); Phosphates; Dyes; Fragrances; Optical Brighteners/ UV Brighteners; Chlorine Bleach; Ammonium sulfate; and Ammonium Quaternary Sanitizers (Quats/ Synthesized Cationic Surfactants. Often advertised as antibacterial). If you're feeling even more curious about these chemicals, PubChem is a great place to explore their properties, uses, and more importantly, their toxicity and safety hazards.

There are some brands that provide safe alternatives for washing your clothes and Nicole Caldwell from Green Matters lists 11 to choose from. If you have an extra 10 or 15 minutes on your hands, you can make your own powder detergent with very few and cheap ingredients. 

I was making my own for a while, but moving across the country was crazy, so I bought Seventh Generation and Biokleen brands of powdered detergent. They've lasted 5 months so far and I have plenty more. Beauty in the Crumbs has a wonderful, cloth-diaper friendly recipe that I'll be using once I run out. 

Rather than using chlorine bleach, you can use hydrogen peroxide, a type of oxygen-based bleach, to pre-treat or add into your washer with each load. There are also several brands that use oxygen-based bleach in their formulas, like Biokleen. The sun is also a great way to naturally bleach your white clothes and laundry.

If you miss the strong fragrance of your old detergent, you can always add a few drops of essential oils to your rinse cycle or to a wet cloth thrown in your dryer. Some folks are more sensitive to essential oils than others, so be careful about the type and amount that you use.

Ditch the fabric softener and dryer sheets

Fabric softeners and dryer sheets contain a nasty concoction of chemicals and are a pretty unnecessary part of your laundry routine. Sure, they smell amazing and leave your clothes soft and fluffy, but this all comes at a cost to your health and to the health of our environment. 

The Environmental Working Group lists some of the harmful ingredients in fabric softeners that pollute our bodies, our air, and our waterways. These chemicals can cause reproductive harm, skin irritations, allergies, cancer, and can trigger your asthma. 

If you feel that your laundry can use some softening, try distilled white vinegar. I add a splash of it to my washer to soften my towels and it works wonders. And no, it doesn't make everything smell like vinegar. Vinegar can be bought in a large amount and has a dozen other household uses; eliminating the amount of waste sent to the landfill. 

Speaking of landfill waste...dryer sheets are also extremely wasteful, single-use items. You can try replacing them with dryer balls (wool is best), tennis balls, or simply reducing your drying time to reduce static. Static happens when all of the moisture in the fabric is gone and excess heat causes static electricity to build. 

Wool dryer balls last for a very long time and you can add essential oils to them for great-smelling laundry

Avoid washing clothes every time you wear them

This may sound gross, but only because we're conditioned to clean and sanitize everything at all times. A little dirt won't hurt!

If you're weren't particularly sweaty or dirty the day you wore your favorite jeans, try putting them aside to wear another day. Waiting until you have a full load to wash helps to reduce the amount of electricity and water that goes into washing and drying.

According to the Alliance for Water Efficiency, older, top-loading washers can use 40-45 gallons of water per load and even more efficient and front-loading washers still use 14-25 gallons per load. That's 2,688 gallons of water a year if you only do 4 loads a week!

Energy-wise, washers use anywhere from 300-1,500 watts. 1,500 watts (15 kWh) is equivalent to the CO2 emissions from driving 26 miles!

Getting more wear out of your clothes before washing will also help them to last longer and reduce the number of times you have to replace an article of clothing. The exceptions to this rule for me are the obvious socks, underwear, and workout clothes. I wash these every time I wear them. I also wash my sheets every week because I have two cats and their shedding and germy paws are no joke.

Wash in cold water

Another way to save electricity and make your clothes last longer is to wash more loads in cold water. According to coldwatersaves.org (check out all their sources and other facts here), 90% of the energy your washer uses is for heating up water. You're saving a heck of a lot of energy and carbon emissions just by washing in cold water. Contrary to popular belief, you can still get stains out in cold water. In fact, some stains are further set in by hot water. 

The only loads I wash weekly on warm/hot are my towels. I've replaced paper towels with reusable towels in the kitchen and in the bathroom, so I like to make sure bacteria are taken care of. 

Hang your clothes to dry

Dryers are one of our more electricity-dependent appliances. They use between 1,800 and 5,000 watts in an hour. So, if you use a 3,000-watt dryer 4 hours a week, that's 48 kWh a month, 576 kWh a year. Doesn't seem like much but that's equivalent to a half a ton of CO2 emissions or the emissions from driving almost 1,000 miles in an average-sized car.

Avoiding the dryer as much as possible and hanging your clothes to dry is a great thing for our environment. It's also a life-saver for your clothes. Dryers are just another way to quickly wear down fabric.

Sunny days are perfect for hanging your clothes to dry, either on a clothesline or on a drying rack. They'll even dry quite nicely on a cloudy day. But you don't have to live in the perfect climate or have a yard to hang your clothes. A drying rack inside, your shower curtain rod, or your doorways are perfectly acceptable places to hang dry. A little more time and patience may be required though. 

The beautiful, wood drying rack I thrifted for a few bucks!

Buy natural fiber fabrics

Cotton, linen, wool, and silk make wonderful pieces of clothing (when ethically sourced of course) and are natural fibers that won't shed harmful microfibers into our waterways. Synthetic fibers like polyester, acrylic, and spandex break down into microfibers every time you wash them, which then drain into our waterways. As of 2019, it's estimated that 13 million tons of microfiber waste enter our oceans from coastal areas every year. These microfibers are harmful to aquatic life and end up in the fish that we eat. 

That being said, it would be very wasteful to just throw out all of your synthetic fiber clothing and buy all new. It would also not be very economic to do that. But, moving forward, when buying clothes, linens, towels, etc., consider buying natural fabrics. 

There are two products out there you can buy to help capture some of those microfibers. The first is the Guppyfriend Washing Bag. It's like a delicates bag that protects your clothes, but it is also designed to capture microfibers before they enter our waterways. You can even send the bag back to them and they'll reuse or recycle it for you.

Cora Ball is another product that is designed to capture microfibers in your wash and something I can actually speak for since I own one. It acts much like coral and captures microfibers on its stalks. It's made of recycled plastic and designed to last a long time. You just throw it in with your wash without having to separate out clothes and it does its thing. Make sure to bag up your delicates and frayed jeans so they don't' get caught in the ball (learned that the hard way). The only slight downside is that it just captures 26% of the microfibers in a load. Still a sweet little invention to help stop microfiber pollution though!

Some microfibers (and likely some cat hair) pulled from my Cora Ball 

There's a lot to be considered here and it's not practical to make all of these changes all at once. Whether you just change your detergent or start to hang your laundry dry, just know that every little change leads to a big difference. 

Edit: I previously listed Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate/ Sodium Lauryl Ether Sulfate (SLES) together as if they had the same chemical makeup. They are not created equal and they each carry their own concerns.  SLES has the potential to be contaminated with a carcinogen, while SLS does not. Although, there have been studies that show SLS as a skin irritant under certain concentrations. Think Dirty breaks it down in an understandable way here

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