An oft mundane, but essential activity is that of laundry. There are a few sustainability issues when it comes to laundry, which we can break them down into 3 sections;
- How we launder
- What we use to launder
- How we dry clothing
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Photo by Bruno Nascimento on Unsplash
How We Launder
Frequency – In a nutshell we wash clothing too often, well most of use do. I grew up washing my clothes after ever wear. It was just normal practice in our house, and honestly, it’s taken some mental adjustment to reduce that frequency. Why do we need to reduce how much we launder?
Well for a few reasons, firstly clothes wear out quicker the more you wash them. Secondly it’s a waste of water, energy, chemicals to wash clothes that don’t need it. And thirdly and, every time we wash clothes we send millions of tiny fragments of fibres (microfibres) into our waterways. This isn’t a problem if the fabric is natural, i.e. 100% cotton or linen or hemp, because natural microfibres biodegrade quickly and don’t negatively effect marine life. However, when we wash synthetic fabrics or fabric that is partially synthetic, we expel tiny fragments of plastic into our waterways, which stunts the growth and affects the reproductive systems of marine creatures, and pollutes our own food and water supply.
Interestingly a new study from Newcastle University, just released, has revealed that delicate washes actually create more microfibres than regular washes. This is due to the increased level of water used to wash the clothes.
When it comes to microfibres from our laundry we have three options, 1) we can limit ourselves to 100% natural / biodegradable fibre fabrics going forward, 2) we can wash our synthetic garments in guppyfriend (mesh bag) or with a coral ball and 3) we can lobby governments and manufacturers to put filters on all new washing machine. Or we can do all 3!
Being a longtime purchaser of natural fibre clothing I can tell you it’s very hard to find, particularly on the high-street. Which is why I tend to order pyjamas, underwear and socks online. I prefer to buy from bricks and mortar shops but when I can’t find what I need there I tell myself that buying more sustainable options online will nudge high-street retailers in that direction. And I may be right because I was able to buy 100% organic cotton pyjamas for my daughter in Mango this summer. I should note that natural fibres are not without their issues and may not be appropriate to every situation. In my experience they need more ironing and take longer to dry, which may lead to extra energy usage in the form of dryer if someone can’t line-dry their clothing.
I’ve heard mixed reports on Guppyfriend and the coral ball. The Guppyfriend was shown to capture 79% of fibres from partly synthetic clothes, and 86% from completely synthetic textiles in independent tests, while in an independent test the coral ball was shown to only capture 26% of the microfibres in a wash. Friends have noted that although fibres did appear to be caught by the Guppyfriend the garments in the mesh bag retained a lot of moisture at the end of the washing cycle (as if it hadn’t been spun properly) and that they didn’t smell as fresh as they had been when washed outside of the bag. Another friend told me that she had to give up using her cora ball because straps and ties kept get tangled in it. I find that this happens with my own washing so I put items with straps and belts in mesh bags I bought in Lidl a few years ago. I’m ashamed to admit that we own too much synthetic clothing for guppyfriends to work for us. It’s one of the downsides of buying second-hand clothing which is mostly synthetic. I figure I’d need 5 guppy bags for one wash and at €30 a pop it’s just beyond my price range at the moment.
I made contact with 7 washing machine manufacturers to ask them if they had a unit that filtered out microfibres, or if they think it would be possible to develop one. Only Miele and Samsung had the courtesy to reply to my query. Unfortunately neither company have models that would filter out microscopic fibres and don’t have any plans to develop one. There is however a washing machine manufacturer in Turkey who are planning to release a microfibre filtering washing machine on the market in 2020 and Xeros in the UK are in talks with commercial and domestic washing machine companies to have their micro-fibre filter fitted in new machines. Also hot off the press is news of scientists in Japan using sound waves to separate micro-fibres from waste water and so prevent it from being discharged into the water ways. For now though there only seems to be washing machines with lint filters on the market but whether they will filter out microfibres too is anyone’s guess. In a Swedish Report on filters for washing machines four washing machine companies were not convinced that filters for household machines were the best approach to mitigate microplastic pollution from textiles, and prefer that legislation regarding such filters should be international to avoid instability on the market.
I have also looked into filters that you attach onto you washing machines, one in Canada, two in the US and one from Slovenia.
- Filtrol 160 – us$140
- Lint LUV-R from Environmental Enhancements – ca$140
- Girlfriend Microfibre Filter – us$45
- Planet Care – €140
The Filtrol 160 filter is made in the US and comes with a lifetime warranty, and sell replacement parts from their US website. the makes of this filter, Wexco Environmental, suggest cleaning the filter bag every 1-3 weeks, to replace it with a new bag after 1-2 years and to avoid using fabric softener as this causes more frequent cleaning. In an independent test the researchers found it took only 10 minutes to fit, was easy to see when it needed to be changed because of the transparent housing but took some technical skill to open the housing. I’ve emailed the company to ask them for some info on tests carried out on their filter. I did read in one of the reports on the website of another filter that ‘Filtrol 160 does not claim to specifically remove fibres of microplastic dimensions (<0.5 mm), but to remove synthetic fibres. Hence, it is likely that microplastic fibres are still released with the laundry water.’ In a test the researchers found it t.
When I emailed the supplier of the Lint LUV-R to ask for a report on the minimum size of micro plastic it’s been proven to filter out, they explained that when they has tested a 150 micron fine
screen it caught 87% of the fibres emitted but became plugged after the first or second rinse cycle. The manufacturer felt that it wasn’t practical to ask homeowners to clean the filter after every wash and run the risk of them damaging their machine if they didn’t do so, so a filter screen with holes of 1.6mm was determined to be the best compromise. The manufacturer mentioned that as the filter catches fibres lint from clothing, the lint itself acts as a filter catching smaller and smaller microfibres until there the filter becomes completely blocked and needs cleaning (every 3 weeks for a family of four). They are in the process of getting their current filter tested by a third party.
When I asked for some technical details for the Girlfriend Microfibre Filter I was told that their filter catches particles of 72 microns and that it can handle modern pumps of at least 17gpm, although they state that putting the filter higher than instructed it will work with machines with stronger pumps . They added that although microfibers are sometimes smaller than 72 microns, they are generally longer and the odds of a fibre threading through a 72-micron hole is fairly low. They are currently looking for partners who can do 3rd party testing on their filter.
Planet Care is made in Slovenia and works on the basis of replaceable plastic filters that you post back to the company for recycling once used. The company don’t currently have a recycling scheme set up but they hope to set this up when they get enough material. They suggest that each filter an be used for 20-30 washes before needing to be changed. They have participated in 4 separate test of their filters and you can read the reports of each test here. According to the tests carried out this filter captures 64 – 80% of the fibres released into the wash, which in one test equated to One washing cycle produced 1403,95mg of plastic fibres to go through the drain water into 1105,59mg of plastic fibre. In a test the researchers found it took only 10 mins to fit, but that it was hard to see when the filters needed to be changed and that changing the filters was tricky to do.
Washing machine filters seem like an ideal solution and it’s great to see inventions like this coming to the market. They aren’t a silver bullet and do have some drawbacks. I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t buy them because of these. I just want you to be fully informed before making your decision;
- They don’t collect 100% of fibres and some aren’t designed to catch the smallest of fibres. This is because the finer the filter the more energy the machine consumes to pump the water through.
- There is no research on the impact of filters on washing machine pumps and there is ambiguity on how this might impact on your machine’s warranty.
- The filters currently on the market require quite a bit of effort on the part of the user. This many not translate well to mass use and so their positive environmental impact may be limited.
- No filter currently exists for washer / dryer machines, which release even more fibres than washing machines alone.
There is another possible solution to the synthetic microfibres but it requires further research to establish this fully. Modal, Viscose or Lyocell fabrics made by the Lenzig company in Austria have been shown to be compostable in soil and biodegradable in water.
Regardless of whether we wearing natural or synthetic fibres we do need to look at ways of laundering less. We can do this by;
- washing our bodies regularly in order to keep our clothes cleaner
- hanging up worn clothes to allow them to air – outside on a windy way is best
- wearing vests and slips again. I know! Sounds very old fashioned, and it is but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t made sense. Wearing thin fabrics next to our skin will protect our outer garments meaning they need less washing, reducing the overall bulk of fabric that needs to be washed weekly.
- Consider using hand towels instead of bath towels. Do you really need all that fabric to dry off?
When you do wash here are some tips on making it as sustainable as possible.
- Wash clothes on the shortest cycle possible or pick the eco wash. This means less water, heated to a lower temperature and a shorter spin cycle to save water and energy.
- Use a cold water or 30°C cycle where possible. You’ll need to occasionally do a hot wash to avoid your machine smelling over time.
- Soak heavily soiled or stained items before washing to avoid having to rewash.
- Wait until you have a full load before washing.
- Where possible, use a high spin speed so clothes come out of the washing machine almost dry, with little need for tumble drying.
- There is an argument to washing clothes at night when wind energy is potentially at it’s highest – wind tends to blow more at night, but this isn’t a guaranteed and you’d be risking a fire breaking out while asleep.
What we Use to Launder
Washing Powder / Liquid – As always I prefer to use 100% natural ingredients to clean, so over the years I trialled cleaning my clothes with soap nuts, and conker laundry liquid. I’ve linked to the two reviews I wrote up on this experiment which you can read by clicking the required links. In summary, the results weren’t great.
I’ve also trialled Bio-D laundry powder, which worked very well but didn’t always leave the clothes fresh smelling. I’m not someone who like their laundry to be fragranced so it wasn’t that. It was more a musty smell that you get when clothing hasn’t been aired quickly, something that happens a lot in Ireland.
After the Bio D washing powder I trialled laundry liquid by Sonett and I was hooked. At first I was using a lightly fragranced liquid, which was fantastic at making the clothes smell clean even if dried in our garage over night, which all other products had failed to do in damp weather. I’ve since switched to their fragrance laundry powder because being a desiccated product it’s more concentrated and lighter than liquid products thereby reducing carbon emissions created from transportation. I’ve been using their laundry powder for over a year now and hand on heart and I haven’t had any problems with it. I’m such a convert that I bought a 10kg box of it as a Zero Waste Festival in April 2019.
Here is some information on brands of eco-laundry products that I’ve seen on sale in Ireland. If you’ve seen others please message me with the brand and where you’ve seen them on sale. I’ve listed them in order of the rating they’ve received from the website Ethical Consumer, which also gives a very good explaination of what is in our laundry products.
Sodasan in a carbon neutral company making certified vegan and environmentally sound cleaning products in Germany for over 36 years. They only use organic vegetable oils Fair Trade projects and don’t use any synthetic preservatives or fragrances, or chlorine or GMOs ingredients. They offset their carbon emissions by supporting re-forestation in collaboration with PRIMA-KLIMA e.V. All energy supplied to the company is from renewable energy sources and free of nuclear power. They don’t use any detergents of petrochemical origin or materials that are produced using GMOs. Wherever possible, they use soap as their base, which they are able to manufacture in a close-looped system (zero waste).
Bio D (UK) source all of the ingredients for their vegan plant-based products, which are made in the UK, from from reputable sources and have full trace-ability. They also list the ingredients in each product on their website. You can read more about the company Bio D in my blog post on Sustainable Ethical Cleaning.
Sonett is a German brand of vegan laundry cleaning products that are available to buy either package-free in some zero waste stores and in packaging in some health stores. It is 100% biodegradable and has been certified for it’s efficacy and environmental credentials by a whole host of organisations. Their soaps are made from sustainably sourced pure organic vegetable oils and lye. You can read more about the company Sonett in my blog post on Sustainable Ethical Cleaning.
The Irish company Lily’s Eco have laundry liquids that are free of colourings, synthetic perfumes and fragrances, enzymes, optical brighteners, and bleach. You can get refills of their products at lots of locations around the country. You can read more about the company Lily’s Eco in my blog post on Sustainable Ethical Cleaning.
Some of the Ecover laundry products get a B rating from EWG, particularly their Zero range, which is fragrance free and suitable for sensitive skins. Some of their products get a C rating, particularly if they’re heavily fragranced. Their standard laundry powder includes some plant based ingredients and comes in a recycled cardboard box. You can read more about the company Ecover in my blog post on Sustainable Ethical Cleaning.
Some people are great fans of the Eco Egg, a device that uses replaceable natural mineral pellets inside a reusable plastic egg to wash your clothes. The pellets don’t contain any palm oil, SLS or SLES, parabens, petrochemicals, enzymes, phosphates or microplastics and only need to be replaced after 70 washes. The same company also sells a dryer egg, which they say makes your dryer more efficient. The cardboard they use for their packaging is FSC approved from sustainable sources and is recyclable, and they use vegetable-based inks for printing. There’s always a great debate when someone asks a questions about these on the Zero Waste forums, some people say the noise of them in the machine drives them crazy, or that they don’t clean very well, others rave about them. If I ever trial one I’ll let you know.
I have seen recipes for homemade laundry powder and I tried one based on grated soap and washing soda (also called soda ash, soda crystals, or sodium carbonate) but it simply didn’t work for me at all. I tried a ratio of 140g (1 bar) of castille soap (veg oil based soap) and 500g sodium carbonate (washing soda / soda crystal / soda ash), i.e. 14g of soap and 50g of sodium carbonate.
Just after I published this post I read a thread in the Zero Waste FB group about bio versus non-bio laundry products. Unlike non-bio products, bio products use enzymes to help break down stains. Some companies, Bio-D and Sonett, are not in favour of enzymes in laundry products and you can read why enzymes in laundry products may be of concern on the Sonett website. A lot of people say that bio laundry products get clothes cleaner at lower temperatures and that this makes them a more sustainable option than non-bio. I’ve decided to use non-bio as much as possible but to try bio on stained clothing not cleaned by non-bio.
I buy laundry powder because it’s lighter to transport than liquid, therefore emitting less carbon but a 2009 Defra study into the environmental impact of laundry detergents found that liquids tend to perform better than powders across most indicators (acidification, human toxicity, climate change, ozone depletion and photochemical smog), apart from eutrophication and aquatic toxicity. They also found that tablets and capsules tend to perform worse than loose versions because of packaging and because their production requires more energy. Loose versions also help you to use less detergent than the manufacturers recommend. (Source: Ethical Consumer)
Tip: Most grateful to reader Christine for commenting on how adding Sodium Carbonate (soda crystals / washing soda / soda ash) to her laundry has allowed her to reduce the amount of laundry detergent by one 3rd. Having done a bit of research on this it seems that sodium carbonate softens water allowing detergents to more easily lift stains out of fabric). This would be particularly useful in hard water areas.
Stain Removal – I spend my life trying to remove stains from my kids clothes so much so that now I refuse to buy anything white! I’ve tried every stain removal trick in the book and to be honest the thing that works it rinsing the stain out under a cold tap as soon as it happens, and possibly steeping the garment in cold water until the next wash.
In my experience washing-up liquid seems to work on most stains that aren’t shifted with water only. I just rub it on before I put the garment in for a regular wash. I find this works quite well on yellowing shirt collars.
My stain problems really only occur when I discovered the stain a good while after it happened or, worst still, after it’s been washed. In my experience once a stain has been washed at a normal setting it’s virtually impossible to shift. I did trial using hydrogen peroxide (see below for more info) this week to remove washed-in sunscreen from a pale coloured t-shirt. Two applications, one over night and with washing-up liquid seems to have lightened the stain a little but it’s still there. I’ll update this blog post when I’ve tried it a few more times.
The only caveat to this has been fat-based stains, likes oils and grease. If I discover a grease spot I sprinkle the stain with cornflour (talcum powder works too) to absorb the oil that’s lingering in the fabric. I then just launder as normal. I repeat the cornflour and laundering steps until the stain disappears, which it has always done for me.
Here are some additional tips for cleaning stains using everyday household ingredients, by the natural cleaning company Mangle & Wringer and more again from the UK blogger Moral Fibres.
Whitening / Bleaching Products – Traditionally whitening products contain some form of chlorine bleach, which releases traces of harmful chlorine gas in your home and in the environment. Frequent users of chlorine bleach are at increased risk of developing asthma and other respiratory problems. The American non-profit the Environmental Working Group (EWG) recommends avoiding chlorine bleach and using chlorine-free alternatives when necessary (Source: EWG)
There are two alternatives to chlorine bleach for whitening. The first is hydrogen peroxide, and the second is oxygen bleach. Hydrogen peroxide is a combination of hydrogen and water while oxygen bleach is made of two chemicals, sodium percarbonate (also know as sodium carbonate peroxide) and sodium carbonate (also know as soda ash, soda crystals or washing soda). As with all chemicals, natural or synthetic, we need to use them carefully and sparingly, both to protect our health and the planet, but all of these chemicals were rated as low-risk (A rating) the EWG.
Oxygen Bleach works by releasing oxygen once it is exposed to water. This release of oxygen lifts stains and dirt off whatever you’re cleaning. If the product only contains sodium percarbonate and sodium carbonate the only by-product is oxygen, water and soda ash making it biodegradable and septic safe (though it is not grey water safe due to the high salt content). From my research there is only one oxygen bleach on the market that only contains these two chemicals. Others contain other chemicals added which may make them more damaging to our health and the planet.
Hydrogen Peroxide can be bought neat from a chemist (approx €3.60 for 130ml of 20% strength), while oxygen bleach is typically bought in a branded product like those listed below;
Bio D Oxy Bleach is vegan, made in the UK and suitable for use with septic tanks. I haven’t tested this product yet. You can read more about the company Bio D in my blog post on Sustainable Ethical Cleaning.
Sonett Laundry Bleach only contains two ingredients, sodium percarbonate and sodium carbonate and for my mind, less concerning than other brands. I’ve used this and found it ineffective at removing my nemesis, washed-in sunscreen on white cotton. You can read more about the company Sonnet post in my blog on Sustainable Ethical Cleaning.
Ecover Laundry Bleach received an A rating from the EWG back in 2012. I’m not sure if the compostition of the product has changed since then but the EWG are constantly reviewing the scores given to products as new information is obtained. It comes in a recycled cardboard box, is cruelty free. This also wasn’t able to remove sunscreen staining from white cotton. You can read more about the company Ecover in my blog post on Sustainable Ethical Cleaning.
Auro Laundry Bleach contains sodium carbonate peroxide and sodium silicate, which has a B rating from the EWG. You can read more about the company Auro in my blog post on Sustainable Ethical Cleaning.
Fabric Softener – We haven’t use fabric softener in years and to be honest you don’t notice it on most clothing. The only fabric that shows the lack of it are towels and they can easily be softened with a cup of vinegar during the rinse cycle.
Fabric softeners are made from mild detergents and ‘cationic’ surfactants which leave a positive charge on the fabric making it feel soft. They basically work in the same way as hair conditioners. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, fabric softeners and tumble dryer sheets contain an enormous number of potentially toxic chemicals, many of which are left on your clothes. These chemicals may include irritants, can cause allergic reactions and can affect the central nervous system. Fragrance is one way that manufacturers try to differentiate their products and the regular off-gassing of perfume chemicals from fabric softeners can be a significant trigger for asthma and other breathing problems. (Source: Ethical Consumer)
How we Dry Clothes
Working from home it’s very easy for me to tell you to line dry your clothes outside as much as you can. The reality is that if you’re away from home all day you’re basically taking a chance that it won’t rain and you won’t be left with sodden laundry that you have to re-spin when you get home. There are a few inventions to help keep laundry outside dry even if it rains. You can get a rain cover for rotary lines or a canopy for clothes lines.
All in all, use a washing line as much as you can, even if it’s only to half-dry your washing and not to worry about the rest of the time. If you do get to line dry your clothes outdoors here are some tips
- windy days are just a good for drying as sunny days
- aim to take clothes in before the dampness of winter evenings get them, otherwise they could be wetter when you take them in that when you put them out.
- clothes will dry in sub zero temperatures if it’s windy!
- even if you can’t dry your clothes completely half-drying them on an outdoor clothes line will cut the amount of energy / time needed in a dryer and make them smell fresher
For anyone that does work from home you’ve not excuse for not using your washing line on days that due to be dry. To dry and average load a tumble dryer uses as much energy as an energy-saving lamp running continually for 6 days and nights (Source: Explain that stuff) so think about that the next time you switch it on when the sun is splitting the stones. Also when a dryer is running it is taking in air from your home, warming it, passing it over wet clothes and venting outside or back into the space. This means that the air that you might have warmed or cooled is being taken, altered and spit back out, making or heating or air-conditioning work harder when your dryer is on to maintain the desired temperature.
The jury is out on whether it’s worth replacing an old dryer with a new one just for efficiency sake. Often more resources are used and more carbon is created during the manufacturing of an appliance than during it’s lifetime. If you do need to replace a dryer then opt for one that has built-in sensors that prevent clothes from over-drying and they operate in such a way that clothes dry more quickly and evenly.
Whatever the dryer you have here are some tips on making the use of your dryer as efficient as possible
- Dry similar fabrics together.
- Clean the filters every time you use your dryer to make sure they’re free from fluff .
- Use auto-dry rather than a timed cycle, that way you won’t be using more energy than required.
- Don’t overload your dryer. There needs to be a bit of room for the hot air to move
- Give all items a good shake when transferring from washer to dryer. This helps remove wrinkles and prevents tangled, twisted items from taking longer to dry.
- Try to do all your drying in one day; a second or third load can take advantage of the heat that has already built up in the machine.
- Remove clothes from your dryer once they are dry, as modern machines will continue to rotate to prevent creasing, and therefore use more energy.
- If your machine is vented, check the outside vent is in good working order and clear it of any dust or debris. This will ensure both safety and efficiency.
- Keep your dryer in a warm room. It will take longer to heat up if kept in an outdoor, unheated shed. (Source: Uswitch.com)
- If you do use a dryer consider using tennis balls to make it more efficient or if you’d rather making your own dryer balls from 100% wool.
You may think that drying your wet clothes on a line or clothes horse inside is energy neutral – it’s not. If you dry clothes on a rack indoors, the energy needed to evaporate the water comes from the ambient(surrounding) air in your home—so your home is cooling down slightly to dry your clothes and costing you more that way. You also run the risk of developing mould in your home from the damp air condensing on cold spots in your house. A 4kg load of washing releases as much as 2 litres of moisture into the air when it’s drying (Source: Explain that stuff). If you have no alternative to drying clothes indoors, you may find a dehumidifier is a good investment: by removing water vapor from the air, it makes your home healthier and can help to reduce heating costs. In fact a dehumidifier uses far less energy than a tumble dryer and can be used to dry lots of items unsuitable for a tumble dryer (Source: unhumid.com).
Some people swear by a heated clothes airer like the Dry:Soon model by Lakeland, which uses about the same amount of energy as a dehumidifier. I haven’t used one but I’d be a bit concerned about putting all that warm wet air into my house.
I have a garage that I dry clothes in when it’s raining or damp outside. It works quite well but if we’ve a run of damp days the clothes can smell a bit musty. If that happens I just hang the garment outside the next windy day we get and it’s fine. In the winter I air cotton clothes indoors on radiators. I find cotton holds onto moisture and that if I don’t air it completely it can start to smell over time. I have tried to wean myself off my compulsion to air everything completely. It’s just a bad habit and isn’t necessary, particularly for regularly worn garments.
PS – You might also be interested in my posts on