The Savvy Consumer: Greening Your Laundry

by Alison Moreno, Store Manager

In your quest to live a more environmentally responsible life, don’t overlook your laundry routine. How you go about washing and drying your clothes every week affects your energy and water use, as well as air quality and health. This article is intended to help you navigate the many choices from an informed perspective, and to turn you on to options that you may not have considered.

Detergent Ingredients to Avoid

Thoughtful consumers who are in the habit of reading ingredient labels won’t glean much useful information from most laundry detergent labels. The ingredients are mostly protected as “trade secrets.” Two of the most problematic ingredients are phosphates and some surfactants, particularly nonylphenol ethoxylates. The good news is that polluting phosphates have been eliminated from most commercial detergents for decades. The bad news is that the surfactants made from nonylphenol ethoxylates – which mimic estrogen – are still found in US laundry detergents, even though the substance has been banned from detergents in Europe. Ammonia and chlorine are sometimes added to laundry booster products, but they aren’t usually in a basic detergent. Ammonia and chlorine are both dangerous to inhale, so it’s best to avoid products with those chemicals. Manufacturers are not required to disclose the ingredients used in fragrances, so unless the source of the fragrance is specified, you can assume that it is a synthetic, petroleum-derived substance. Some fragrances are suspected of releasing volatile organic compounds that can cause headaches, dizziness or nausea.The Water Center at the University of Washington has a helpful fact sheet about the harmful effects of fragrance chemicals on human and aquatic health.

The EPA has a voluntary partnership program called Design for the Environment (DfE for short). Manufacturers can submit their laundry detergent formulas to the DfE scientific review team, which screens each ingredient for potential human health and environmental effects. The review team determines-based on currently available information, EPA predictive models, and expert judgment-whether the product contains only those ingredients that pose the least concern among chemicals in their class. To access the list of laundry products that have earned the DfE label, visit the DfE website.

Fragrance in Laundry Products
On SFGate’s blog The Thin Green Line, Cameron Scott references the University of Washington’s recent report “Chemical Emissions from Residential Dryer Vents During Use of Fragranced Laundry Products.” He summarizes: “Air released through the dryer vent while a dryer handles a load washed with the top-selling scented liquid laundry detergent and a scented dryer sheet contains more than 25 volatile organic compounds and two carcinogens. The EPA classifies acetaldehyde and benzene as carcinogens, for which it has established no safe exposure level. Manufacturers are not required to disclose the ingredients used in fragrances, so the researchers weren’t able to document the origin of the toxic emissions.” Said lead author Anne Steinemann, “These products can affect not only personal health, but also public and environmental health. The chemicals can go into the air, down the drain and into water bodies.”

Powder vs. Liquid Detergents
For most people, powdered detergents make more environmental sense than liquid detergents for two reasons. The first is weight. Most liquid detergents have the same ingredients as their powder counterparts with the addition of water, and that water comes at a price. Shipping liquid detergents uses more fossil fuels and increases your carbon footprint. They sometimes cost more because of all that extra weight. Why pay extra to ship water? A second reason to use powdered detergents is that many (but not all) come in cardboard boxes. You can easily flatten the box and add it to your recycling. The plastic containers of liquid detergents can be recycled, but the recycling of plastic has not put the slightest dent in the massive-scale manufacturing of virgin plastic bottles.

Greywater Systems
Laundry-to-landscape greywater systems are a great way to re-use the wastewater from your washing machine to irrigate your garden. They don’t require a permit, and are relatively easy to install. Attend the EcoHouse tour this November that focuses on water-saving features like greywater. Or visit Greywater Action’s website to find local greywater system installers or to view their calendar of educational events.

If you have a laundry-to-landscape greywater system, you will want to avoid powdered detergents because they contain salts. People without greywater systems don’t have to worry about salts because their salty wastewater gets sent to a water treatment plant and ultimately ends up in the ocean. In general, salts soften your water and help to get your clothes clean. People who do use greywater systems won’t want to water their plants with salty water. For greywater systems, look for “biocompatible” detergents. These are sodium-free and have a lower pH level, so they won’t hurt the plants in your yard. Biocompatible detergents will biodegrade into plant nutrients.

Washing Your Clothes
If you are in the market for a new appliance, high-efficiency Energy Star labeled models are definitely the way to go. The water and energy savings are substantial: 35 to 50 percent less water, and 50 percent less energy per load. Unless your clothes are filthy dirty, the cold water setting is sufficient. About 90% of the energy used for washing clothes in a conventional top-load washer is for heating the water.

Drying Your Clothes
Far and away, the most energy efficient, environmentally friendly, and cheap way to dry your clothes is to dry them on a clothesline or drying rack. However, the Bay Area’s wet winters can make these techniques challenging for a few months, unless you have a warm, dry basement or room in which to hang your laundry.

Clothes dryers are energy hogs, and typically the second-biggest electricity-using appliance in a home. Unlike other appliances, clothes dryers don’t vary much in the amount of energy used from model to model, and are thus not required to display EnergyGuide labels. The technology of dryers hasn’t changed much over the years: an electric fan distributes heated air. But there are habits that you can adopt to increase the efficiency of your machine. These tips were gleaned from the California Energy Commission’s Consumer Energy Center.

  • Clean the lint filter after every load. A dirty lint screen can cause your dryer to use up to 30 percent more energy – and it can be a fire hazard.
  • Dry only full loads.
  • Dry two or more loads in a row, taking advantage of the dryer’s retained heat.
  • Keep your dryer’s outside exhaust clean. A clogged exhaust lengthens drying time and increases energy use.
  • If your machine has a moisture sensor option, use it to automatically shut off the machine when clothes are dry.
  • Separate your clothes loads according to weight: a load of lightweight items will take less drying time.

What the Ecology Center Store Carries

  • Biokleen All Temperature Laundry Powder

A powdered detergent, its ingredients include color safe oxygen bleach and no phosphate, chlorine, ammonia, or petroleum products. Biokleen lists all its ingredients (which is very pro-consumer!).

  • GreenShield Organic Free & Clear Laundry Detergent

Made with saponified organic coconut and palm oils, sea salt, organic guar, natural fatty alcohol and water, with no added fragrance. This liquid detergent comes in a container made from recycled plastic. It contains sea salt, so it is not appropriate for greywater systems. What we like about GreenShield is that it is made with USDA certified organic ingredients. When you use this detergent, you are supporting organic farmers and a safe, cleaner environment. If you prefer liquid detergents to powders, this is the one to use.

  • Oasis Biocompatible Laundry Detergent: Sodium-free, biocompatible liquid detergent ideal for greywater systems.
  • Wooden clothespins and collapsible clothes drying racks

[Photo by Susy Morris]


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