Clean clothes are a basic necessity of life. So, of course, we do our laundry. We do a lot of laundry.
In fact, the average American family does 8-10 loads of laundry each week! But laundry generates a lot of waste.
Just one load of laundry uses up to 41 gallons of water and 3,045 kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity.
Just one load of laundry releases about 3.86* pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) and pollutes our water with microplastics and chemicals.
That’s enough electricity to run about 14 LED bulbs for their full life—about 25,000 hours each.
This waste and pollution are impacting our planet in a big way.
But you can make some small adjustments to how you do laundry and save yourself some money while reducing your carbon footprint.
These zero waste laundry tips and swaps are easy and effective, and they’ll probably save you some major cash.
*This number was taken as an average, the actual number varies on your specific machine, energy source, and laundry settings (e.g. water temp)
How Does Laundry Impact the Environment?
Zero Waste Laundry Tips
Zero Waste Laundry Swaps
How Does Laundry Impact the Environment?
As I mentioned above, laundry has a pretty big impact on our environment. Here are some of the ways that laundry can be harmful.
According to this study, the United States used 191,000 gigawatt hours (gWh) of electricity to do laundry in 2005.
Yeah, I didn’t really know what that meant either, so I did some digging and found that it’s comparable to lighting 110 million LED lights for 191,000 hours … that’s almost 22 years straight of LED lighting for a LOT of people.
Depending on your washer and dryer, the amount of energy used for a load of laundry will vary.
- Gas uses less energy than electric
- Energy Star rated washers and dryers use significantly less energy
Most of the energy that goes into a load of wash is used to heat the water.
- Washing in hot water and rinsing in warm is 4.5 kWh
- Washing and rinsing on cold is only 0.3 kWh
If you’re not using high-efficiency (HE) washer, then you might be using 45 gallons of water for every load of laundry.
In fact, laundry accounts for 21% of indoor water usage for the average American household (same study as above).
HE washers do better, ranging anywhere from 15-30 gallons of water per use.
Why is this bad? Well, at our current rate of water usage, we’re expected to run out of fresh, drinkable water by 2040. I’m talking like, literally the whole planet will be out of fresh water. It’s been used up or polluted in some way.
That’s only twenty years from now … will you still be here to see it?
“There will be no water by 2040 if we keep doing what we’re doing today”.
– Professor Benjamin Sovacool, Aarhus University, Denmark.
Water Pollution – Chemicals
So, we’re running out of water. Part of the problem is that we keep dumping chemicals into our water systems.
How does that happen? Lots of ways, but if you guessed that laundry is one of them, you get a gold star.
Chemicals used in detergents, softeners, and other laundry products are in the water that drains from the machine and back into our water systems.
The good news is that many chemicals used in modern detergents are designed to biodegrade during the sewage treatment process.
The bad news is that they can impact our ecosystems before they make it to the treatment plant. Plus, that’s not all the chemicals, only some.
The main things to watch out for are fragrances and phosphates. The Washington Toxics Coalition, a non-profit organization, found a correlation between elevated levels of toxic metals, like arsenic, lead, and mercury in water systems and the use of detergents with phosphates.
These heavy metals are often released back into the water system even after the treatment process that removes many of the other chemicals.
Water Pollution – Microplastics
And then there are the microplastics. Microplastics are plastic particles that measure under five millimeters (5m) in length.
They can be any kind of plastic, including many of the plastics that are used in clothing. Many synthetic fibers such as polyester, nylon, and acrylic are common sources of microplastics in laundry.
But many people overlook some of their favorite soft fabrics, like flannel or fleece, which also contain plastics.
As these, and other, fabrics are agitated in the wash, they release microplastics into the water.
This is bad. The short version is that small fish eat these microplastics and then they work their way into our food systems. If you’re interested in the long version check out my blog on plastic pollution in the oceans, or my blog on why plastic is bad for the environment.
Other Waste & Pollution
To top it all off, we still need to account for all the refuse created by laundry.
Plastic detergent bottles, dryer sheet remnants and so on. These items end up in landfills or oceans. Either way, it’s creating more mess that we need to clean up.
Zero Waste Laundry Tips
There are many ways to lower your laundry-carbon footprint. This first list is simple tips, most of which are free or will save you money to implement.
Wash Less Often
A simple but effective solution is to just wash less often. Unfortunately, most people wash their clothes after a single wear.
Now, some clothes should be washed after every use. But many can be worn more than once.
For example, I wash my underwear and my sweaty workout clothes every use. But I wash jeans and even my bras only once a month or so, after multiple uses. (Keep in mind that I have more than one of each in rotation.)
Not only does washing less often save water and energy, and reduce waste and pollution, it also extends the life of your clothing. The act of washing your clothes wears them out faster.
In fact, Levi Strauss recommends washing their jeans only once for every 10 wears. They even say you can go longer than that, and only wash them when they start to smell funky.
Here are some other guidelines:
- Wash these items after every use:
- Underwear & Socks
- T-shirts & Tanks
- Leggings & Tights
- Bathing Suits
- Everything else can be worn more between washes, but you should account for your lifestyle – if you smoke or sweat a lot, you may want to wash thing smore often.
- Wash bed sheets every two weeks
- Wash pajamas after 3 or 4 wears
- Bath towels should be hung to dry between uses and washed after 3 to 5 normal uses
- Bras can be worn 2 to 3 times before washing
- Outer clothes like dress shirts and pants can be worn a few times before washing
- Suits can be worn several times between cleanings
In this case, you may need to buy a product like the Cora Microfiber Landry Ball. The Cora Ball catches up to 26% of fibers released during the wash cycle. According to its makers, if 10% of U.S. households started using Cora Ball, we would prevent the equivalent of 30 million plastic water bottles from entering the oceans. WOW.
There are other products on the market that serve the same function. But if you’re looking for a low-cost or free alternative … well, the only thing I can tell you is to stop buying synthetic fabrics. Organic Cotton is the way to go!
Use Cold Water
Cold water damages your fabrics less than hot water. It also uses significantly less energy per wash (15 times less according to the numbers I listed above).
So, using cold water will lower your electric bill and the amount you spend on new clothing to replace faded stretched out clothes. That’s a win-win for you!
The only time I use hot water is when I want to go a little extra on the germ-killing. For me, it’s hot water, cold rinse, for bedding and bath towels. Otherwise, it’s cold-cold all the way.
Wash Full Loads
Your washer may have a light load setting that will use less water. Using that for a small load is certainly better than using the regular settings for a light load.
But you’re still running another load of wash.
It’s better to wait until you have more laundry that needs washing and just do one load instead of two.