What's the carbon footprint of…a load of laundry? Washing clothes racks up a surprising amount of emissions to your toxic trails—the shorthand for all the different greenhouse gasses that contribute to global warming. Depending on how you do it and how many loads you get through each week, washing and drying a load every two days creates a whopping 440 kg of CO2 emissions each year, according to Mike Berners-Lee, a leading expert in carbon footprinting, director and principal consultant at Small World Consulting, and author of How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything.
You probably don't spend much time thinking about how to green your laundry—until, that is, you really screw it up. Step forward, six small changes that can make a big difference in how your clothes-washing routine affects your health and the environment. So go on, see if you can make your clothes last forever—the world of eco-laundry, as it turns out, is evolving right alongside your beauty and well-being rituals—and these are the tricks that every girl should have up her sleeve...
1. Control the temperature.
When you switch from using hot or warm water to using cold water, you reduce the energy needed for heating the water. The Alliance to Save Energy estimates that almost 90 percent of the energy used when washing clothes goes to heating water. Modern washing powders work just as well at low temperatures, so there is a very simple saving to be had here by merely turning the temperature down. Keep an eye out for new cleaning technologies like Xeros, which emits tiny nylon beads mixed with a small amount of water to remove dirt from fabrics, requiring 50 percent less energy, 50 percent less detergent, and 80 percent less water than a conventional washer.
Top tip: Now what? Simply turn that dial down to cold!
2. Wash full loads.
Reducing the number of loads you do each week will save water and money. Still not convinced? Even the most high-tech energy-efficient washing machines use 27 gallons of water, and older models can consume up to 54 gallons per load, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Top tip: Resist the urge to do several small loads over the course of a week, and wait until you have a full washer's worth of laundry.
3. Switch to natural detergents and stain removers.
Natural products tend to be free of chlorine bleach, synthetic fragrance, and dyes. Use concentrated detergent formulas with reduced packaging and less volume, and if you use detergent in a plastic bottle, recycle or reuse the bottle. Plus, new iterations are usually plant- (not petroleum) based, contain biodegradable surfactants, and are specifically formulated to perform well in cold water. Brands like Seventh Generation, Ecover, Method, and Planet all make laundry detergents that eliminate polluting ingredients and are biodegradable.
Top tip: The Laundress is the product that sets the bar for all others. With nontoxic, biodegradable, and fragrance-free options, the brand's detergents work wonders and won't have you questioning what you're breathing in or rubbing into your hands.
4. Choose oxygen (the new non-chlorine) bleach.
Your lovely threads stand no chance against carcinogen-suspected chemicals in laundry bleach like perchloroethylene and hydrocarbon. Not only that, but bleach can irritate skin and eyes. Most non-chlorine bleach is hydrogen peroxide, and you can buy it in most drugstores—this type of hydrogen peroxide, typically in a brown bottle, is usually a 3 percent concentration, meaning it's extremely diluted.
Top tip: Get jazzy with some lemons. Soak stained whites in very hot water and a generous amount of lemon juice overnight, then remove from the basin and wash as usual the next day.
5. Hang clothes to dry.
Keeping your clothes out of a dryer extends their life, reduces energy use, and cuts costs. Whether indoors or outside, line drying can be done year round. If you avoid line-drying your laundry because the dryer makes everything feel softer on your skin, cut down your detergent use, as detergent can build up into a dulling residue over time, and add a cup of white vinegar to the washer during the final rinse cycle.
Top tip: Don't put bright colors in direct sunlight—your fabrics will fade.
6. Make your own laundry products.
The only real way to know what's going into your laundry is to whip up your own solutions. Use ingredients that are already in your pantry like vinegar and baking soda. Many of these DIY formulas have been used for generations and get the job done.
Top tip: This do-it-yourself detergent is easy as pie to make. Mix a bar of Dr. Bronner's Castile soap grated finely, 1 cup of baking soda, ½ cup citric acid, and ¼ cup coarse sea salt in an airtight container. To use, add 1 to 2 tablespoons to each load.