What You Don’t Know: Energy, Water, And Laundry

  • July 27, 2011 8:55 am

How often do you think about the environmental impact of your dirty clothes?  Believe it or not, about 90 percent of the energy used associated with doing laundry is just making water hot!  The other stuff like making detergents and the actual energy used by the machines accounts for only 10 percent. Fascinating, no?

When you reach for the hot water button on your washer, it’s hard to conjure up the image of a coal-fired power plant and the pollution it creates, but try to connect those dots. Picture greenhouse gases and the mercury residue in our waterways and seafood.  Although we may be home alone washing doormats, jeans, and rags, our actions always ripple out and affect the world beyond our walls.  Washing in cold will reduce that impact and minimize your dirty laundry’s footprint.  Here’s a little  excerpt from Planet Home about cold water washing:

By using cold water, you will also reduce your indoor air pollution: heating water blasts volatile chemicals, including chlorine in municipal water, into your breathing space.  If you’re using heavily fragranced conventional synthetic detergents, all of those vapors are also released when heated.  Cold water is truly all you need to clean, and some natural detergents are specially formulated to remove soils and stains in it.  Cold also prevents stains from setting, colors from bleeding and fading, and wools and silks from shrinking.

No one needs scalding water; you just wind up cooling it with cold – a big waste of energy.  Set your furnace lower – 125 degrees fahrenheit will suffice – and you’ll use less hot water when you choose warm on your washer.  If you have a choice, an on-demand or tankless water heater is best, followed by a high-efficiency gas version.  With electric, the heater itself is efficient, but the production and transmission of energy is not.

Another great way to save energy and reduce your carbon footprint is to air dry–outdoors or inside.  Using natural elements–sun and air–makes sense for so many reasons:

-It’s gentler on your clothes, provided you don’t leave them in the sun for too long (your colors will fade).

-It’s extremely environmentally friendly–dryers use 10 to 15 percent of domestic energy in the United States.

-Sunshine is great at killing bacteria, fungus, and mold–no chemical disinfectants needed!

-Indoor racks can help humidify dry indoor spaces, a big bonus come winter in my apartment.

Unfathomably, many municipalities and condo or co-op associations have banned laundry lines. If you’d like to sign a petition allowing line-drying where you live, go to www.right2dry.org.

Air Drying Week 4 & Conclusion

  • June 27, 2010 1:47 pm

Well I made it through Week Four of the super fantastic cold-water washing/eco-detergent/air drying challenge. Because I have been trying to make this both an urban and a non-urban (i.e the yard of my parents’ house) experience, Week Four was meant to be a non-urban one. But we didn’t go upstate. So it was another odd attempt to air dry in my New York City apartment. If you have been following along, you will recall that I have always been a cold-water washer (unless I’m doing sheets for allergy reasons) and an eco-detergent user. So really this challenge for me has been about air-drying. My last two weeks of urban air-drying involved a drying rack with PVC ropes too smelly to leave inside, followed by a week when the amount of laundry I hung on my shower rod broke it.

This week was pretty uneventful. The weather has been insanely hot, which means the clothing we’re wearing is pretty skimpy. This means less laundry. I was able to go a full week and a half until I had two stuffed loads – one mainly sheets and towels. I had installed a new shower rod but still haven’t managed to purchase a different drying rack, so I made use of the shower rod, and did the usual drape everything all over the apartment scenario. I cheated on the towels. They weren’t getting dry and were on the verge of smelling. But at least 1 dryer load for 2 wash loads is better than 2.

The organizers of this challenge – Seventh Generation – sent me some end-of-project questions to fill out and I thought I’d share them and my responses here.

1.       What was the easiest part of the laundry challenge and why?

Cold water washing and using the eco-detergent. I have already been doing these for years.

2.    What was the hardest and why?

Several things.

*Figuring out how to air dry inside an apartment.
I see how it can work and work well, but I don’t yet have the right equipment and the dryer is a very useful and lifelong habit. It’s a real mind shift.

Line drying outside on a sunny, lightly breezy day was, well, a breeze. But add some clouds and some downpours and it’s really hard to figure it all out. I’m usually only upstate for 2 days at a time and it can take longer than that to line dry if the weather isn’t perfect, which it rarely is.

You need to have a lot of it to make it work. Some days I hardly have enough time to sleep. Putting the clothes from the washer directly onto hangers to dry saves some time. I’ve been doing that.

3.       What techniques will you continue to use, now that the challenge has concluded?

I’m going to give up warm water washing my sheets. I do it for allergies, but if/when they’re not acting up I’m not going to turn up the temperature to kill the dust mites. I’m dedicating myself to figuring out the right air drying equipment for my small urban apartment and creating a system for how to make it work for me. I have already started this process, but it will take more than a month of laundry (I only do 2 loads a week). In my current apartment, it may also mean 2 loads of wash and 1 dryer load. I am not confident I have adequate ventilation to air dry completely wet towels in my apartment. That said, if and when we move – and we do have vague plans to – I will take air drying into account. We want a little outdoor space for many reasons, and I will add being able to line dry to the list.

Air Drying Weeks 1, 2 & 3

  • June 18, 2010 11:32 am

Week One: Indoors

My first indoor attempt was curtailed by the drying rack Seventh Generation sent me to use. I opened it and set it up. It took up half my apartment. No matter. The metal base seemed sturdy enough and the ropes on top some sort of plastic. It didn’t seem big enough for all I had stuffed in the washing machines. Before I even went down the hall to get my two loads of wet laundry, I noticed the undeniable stench of PVC/vinyl, AKA “The Poison Plastic” coming from those ropes. This is not something I ever want to be breathing, even if it meant air drying less clothing than I promised I would. I quickly boxed the thing back up, opened the window wider, and turned on a fan. I hung as much of the wet laundry as I could over every part of my apartment – on hangers on the shower curtain rod, on the backs of chairs etc. – but had to dry the rest. Not an entire failure but a failure nonetheless. This wasn’t that different than what I normally do. I always air dry my more delicate clothing and that’s about all that will fit draped around my apartment. That night, I started researching different drying racks (wood, especially FSC-certified, are expensive, IKEA has a cool looking and inexpensive metal rack, and Project Laundry List sells tons of great options). I also posted on Facebook for advice from friends who urban air dry. I got and am still getting great responses and even photos. Some people dry in their closets! (Mine has no room.) Some put delicates in the oven on low and, in the winter, stand in front of it to warm up at the same time! They figure short time baking uses less energy than putting a load in the dryer. So I may have failed overall, but I gained inspiration and how-to advice for my next attempt.

Meanwhile, I noticed my daughter stole my clothespins, set up a line in her play area, and was drying her doll’s clothes. Her line was tidy and well arranged. Educating the next generation = success!

Week Two: Outdoors

We went upstate to my parents’ house that weekend. I brought the PVC-stinky stand, and set it up outside in their yard to let it offgas overnight. The following morning, I put the first load up. It happened to be some of their gardening clothes and sheets. My first attempt was anything but graceful. I’d prefer a line to a tippy stand. (Later I was informed that I didn’t open it all of the way. I’m not sure how this is true but my PVC ropes are less taught in pictures than those belonging to other participants of this challenge. Oops!) Getting the sheets on there was not too easy. And my family was more than happy to mock my attempts. I was fascinated to learn that both my mom and stepfather remember line drying as one of their chores growing up, yet neither offered me tips as I wrestled with the stand. Just as I finally had everything on there, my mother got out of the pool with my daughter and announced she was going to put their damp towels in the dryer! I diverted her from the machine and hung the towels. This was around 5 p.m. The wind picked up and I was feeling positive. Fifteen minutes later, the sky opened up. It was pouring. I enlisted help and moved the rack underneath an overhang on the back porch. I worried about the other load waiting in the washer – clean and wet – to be hung. Rookie mistake. I vowed next time to check the weather before outdoor drying. And to read some instructions. By 11 p.m. the sheets were actually dry but nothing else was. It rained for two more days. I bet that when we left, the remaining damp items were transferred into the dryer.

Week Three: Back In the City
Life is busy and I hadn’t managed to buy a new rack before it was time to do my weekly two loads. We didn’t have much laundry so I vowed to dry as much of it as possible in the apartment. The weather was dry so I hoped that would help speed things up in my ventilation-challenged apartment. As I put wet clothes on hangers, I was feeling stressed. I have many work deadlines this month and though I wanted — and want — to get into what could be sort of zen about the experience, I was rushing so I could get back to work, annoyed by how long it was taking. I reminded myself that my annoyance was nothing compared to lowering the amount of energy I use. I smoothed the hanging shirts with my hands so there would be less wrinkles once dry.  Then I pushed the hangers to the side to make room, and tossed a pair of jeans – the last item — over the bar. The bar came crashing down. I broke it. It fell on me. I was laughing and crying at the same time. I so badly wanted this to work but once again I failed. I resituated everything in other corners of the apartment, then got back to work.

This coming weekend will be Week Four and my conclusion/assessment of the project. Stay tuned. And feel free to post comments.

I’m Line Drying (Take 1)

  • June 16, 2010 11:40 pm

I try very hard to do my part, environmentally speaking. When going green, some steps are more important and have bigger impact than others. I say this in just about every book (The Complete Organic Pregnancy, The Conscious Kitchen) and article I write. That said, some green changes are more practical than others. Changing how we all launder our clothes can have a monumental impact. Cold water washing with a “green” detergent and line drying your clothing is the ideal.

For years now, I’ve had the green detergent part down. I do this to avoid non-renewable petrochemicals as well as skin and lung irritating not to mention hormone disrupting synthetic fragrances. Its residue is also far better for our waterways. And I (mainly – more on this in a minute) wash in cold water. The amount of energy it takes to heat water is unfathomable. And it mostly comes from coal-fired power plants, which I like to rely on as little as possible. Warm or hot water washing will also up your electricity bill. Trust me – and many studies – when I say that clothes get perfectly clean in cold water so I’m happy to avoid the coal (for me and my neighbors) and the bills.

When it comes to line drying, I have much room for improvement. In any green life, there are steps that have not been sufficiently taken. It’s on the top of my To Green list. To be perfectly honest, it has been there for a while, not budging. I happen to live in New York City. Some things here are beyond easy. Rely entirely on public transportation? No problem! Eat locally and shop exclusively at farmers’ markets and/or join a CSA? Check! Others eco-steps take a little more finagling, like composting in an apartment. That also sat on my To Green list for too long. But we tackled it and are now a composting-obsessed family. The line-drying (or non-dryer drying) challenge lingers. I’m not sure why. I know all too well why it’s a great idea to line dry. I like that – beyond energy conservation – it preserves your clothing. What do you think lint is? That’s your favorite outfit disintegrating. Durability is a key tenet of living green: I want my clothes to last as long as possible.

Thankfully an unexpected intervention arrived not too long ago via email. Seventh Generation invited me to take part in a line-drying challenge/experiment. I jumped at the chance. Full disclosure: I’m writing a book with their co-founder now. It comes out in December of this year. And it even contains a laundry chapter where we detail the pros of line drying. They sent me detergent, a laundry basket, and a drying stand to make it all possible, plus a Flip camera to document the experiment. In return, I pledged to cold water wash in their detergent and line-dry for a month, and capture the process via words, photos, and film.

Before I even launch into the unexpected tragicomedy that ensued, a few words on my own personal laundry situation:

*As mentioned, I live in New York City, in an apartment building.

*My apartment is small.

*I do not have a washer or a dryer, but my building maintains two of each on every floor. We share these with many apartments.

*Yes, I am well aware that although I carefully measure out my eco-detergent for every load, my clothing is therefore tumbling around with the residues of the conventional products (including bleach) my neighbors unfortunately favor. I have even put loads of baby clothes up shortly after the rags that mop the hallways completed their spin. This is far from ideal. It makes me cringe.

*There is one front loader washer (these are more efficient), which I am glad for. The other is a top loader.

*On the washers, I can choose the temperature and I always choose cold. Except for when I do sheets. I use warm to kill dust mites. These trigger allergies and asthma. Thankfully my daughter has neither. But I do have allergies. And air pollution induced allergies are a common concern here in New York, especially with young and growing lungs. But I’m thisclose to switching this every-other-week load to cold.

*The dryers are industrial. I can only buy an hour at a time. This is a problem. I wish I could buy 10 minutes or so (enough to de-wrinkle things before I hang them to dry in my not-well-ventilated apartment). When you let your clothing go for a full hour – which tends to happen; life is busy – they’re desiccated dry. Beyond the energy this uses, it’s really harsh on clothing.

*Traditionally, I’m a semi-line-dryer. I grew up drying clothes briefly, then pulling them out of the dryer to finish drying on hangers or towel racks. This was not an environmental nod; my mom has always been interested in fashion and taught me that this was best for the fabrics. Sheets and towels, however, I always dried.

*Let me reiterate that my place is cramped and not very well ventilated. It takes a while for towels to dry post shower. We have no access to outdoor space. And though I do know that the EPA estimates indoor air is actually 2 to 5 times more polluted than outdoor air – even urban outdoor air — I cannot help but think that I’m not sure I want to dry my pillowcases outside in New York City, then breathe in car exhaust residue nightly. But this is unscientific paranoia.

*I do a fair amount of laundry at my parents’ house on weekends. I’m probably too old to do this, and a sucker to admit it in print, but I take my laundry with me when I go see my family. Don’t get me wrong. No one is doing my clothes for me. And I usually do theirs (I’m know family-wide for my excellent folding). But as long as I have someone playing with the kid, I like to multitask.

All of this said, we don’t do much laundry. Despite the fact that I have a kid. I have been told – over the course of this experiment – that most Americans do many loads per week, sometimes daily. Our average is two loads a week. Our washers are pretty big. I stuff them fuller than full. In the winter, when our clothes are more voluminous (long sleeve shirts and pants take up more room than tank tops, t-shirts, shorts and dresses) we sometimes have three. When my daughter was an infant, and when she started solids, we probably did more.

Stay tuned for how my experiment all went down – both in my city apartment, and upstate on my parents’ lawn (during a monsoon). Who knew I could ever write this much on clean clothes?