3 Common Laundry Habits You Can Easily Change To Better The Environment
Fighting climate change can feel like a giant undertaking. As with most wicked issues, there isn't a tangible solution that can answer all the intersections these complex problems encounter. But at the risk of sounding cliché, small actions can truly make a big difference when it comes to living sustainably.
Take laundry, for example: "Whenever you wash, dry, or even wear clothing, little pieces of fiber fall off," Jesse Daystar, Ph.D., the Chief Sustainability Officer of Cotton Inc., says on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast. And if you use a washing machine, these little microfibers are so tiny that they have the ability to drain out of the washer and straight into the ocean—which can be quite harmful to marine ecosystems and wildlife. Not to mention, those microfibers can even end up on your plate, if you eat the fish that consume the pollutants. In fact, a 2019 study found that we ingest five grams of plastic every week (the equivalent of a credit card), from contaminants in our food, drinking water, and even in the air.
However, according to Daystar, consumers have the power to make a great impact, starting with our wash cycles. Here's exactly how he wants you to change your laundering habits for a better environment:
First, a note on biodegradable clothing.
We'd be remiss not to highlight how the fabrics you choose can have a significant impact on the issue at hand. "Make sure your garments and products aren't going to stick around for thousands of years," Daystar says. Meaning, it's best to choose garments that eventually decompose in the ground, if you can. Organic cotton, hemp, and bamboo (and a host of others, outlined here) are all versatile, biodegradable materials that can be a little easier on the planet.
However, it's still important to keep laundry habits front of mind: "When you look at where the actual impacts occur in clothing, very little occurs during production," says Daystar. "Half is through manufacturing and greenhouse gases and the other half is through machine wash use."
So, even if your closet is filled to the brim with sustainable fabrics, those materials can still leech microfibers into the ocean with constant washing and drying. That said, these three laundry habits are crucial, no matter where you are on your sustainable clothing journey:
Wash your garments less.
Perhaps the most obvious tip is to, you know, avoid the washing machine altogether. Perhaps learn how to hand-wash your clothes in the tub or sink, or simply refrain from chucking items in the wash that you can rewear. You can even spot-wash certain stains by hand, says Daystar, without throwing the whole garment in the machine. If forgoing the washer is simply not an option for you, perhaps make your washes shorter in order to save on energy.
But there's an important distinction to note here: Cleaning your clothes on a light or delicate setting does not constitute a "lighter" wash. In fact, one study found that 800,000 more microfibers were released from clothing in a delicate wash than a standard cycle. That's because it's the volume of water, not the speed and abrasive force of the washing machine, that's responsible for the release of these fibers. (And a delicate spin cycle uses a much higher volume of water.)
Wash with cold water.
While hot water is often the default setting on most washers, Daystar urges those with washing machines to make the switch to cool. Not only can it better the environment, but it can enhance your clothing as well: One recent study found that washing with cold water can increase the longevity of fabric1. On a cold water cycle, clothes were able to maintain a more vibrant color, and they lost fewer microfibers, to boot. Perhaps save the scalding water for very, very soiled items.
Skip the dryer.
To save significant energy, Daystar recommends hanging your clothes out to dry. Whether you're able to hang them on a clothesline or drying rack outside or you simply prop them out of the way in your bathroom, it's a simple change that can have enormous effects on the environment. "It can really save a lot of energy," Daystar notes.
These three changes may be simple, but they can have a significant impact on the earth. "It's not rocket science," Daystar notes, "but it's going to be huge for saving energy and better for the environment." It's certainly something to think about the next time you're washing sweaty separates.