Monday, August 31, 2009

Laundry: Eco-Strategies

Laundry is an extremely resource-intensive pursuit: each load we throw in the wash consumes detergent, any additional inputs people opt for, water, electricity to run the washing machine, gas to heat the water (if you don't go with cold water) and ditto for the dryer, which is fueled by electricity and gas. And of course laundry consumes a lot of time, too.

Wash Day was a very literal depiction, in times past. Standards for housework escalated with the advent of "labor-saving" devices across the home, and laundry is no exception. My mother grew up in a prosperous 1920's household where each diner was assigned one large damask napkin FOR THE WEEK; monogrammed napkin rings served as ID's for them. People didn't throw clothes into the hamper just because they'd worn them once or automatically toss towels and linens in after a single use. The easiest thing you can do to save resources and time is simply be more selective about how frequently you wash items.

One of the most liberating things I learned from my mother-in-law (a frugal immigrant from Germany) is that it's fine to change bed linens every other week; she totally goes for the least laborious approach. Changing sheets biweekly does not seem to shorten lifespans or result in the Board of Health citing you for Bad Housekeeping. Likewise, if towels are assigned and freshly showered people use them, who says the towels are dirty?

Now, for the laundry. First, reduce packaging by buying detergent in a large container, and if it's "x2", that means it's concentrated, so use just HALF of what you did with the older product. My experience is that for normal loads, you can use less than they recommend. After all, their job is to maximize the amount of detergent they sell you. I never use fabric softener at all; to me it's just injecting a whole lot more chemicals into the system.

The new front-loading washers use way less water, a worthwhile upgrade if you're in the position to buy one. The clothes are more wrung out, too, so it cuts drying time. They use specially formatted detergent, in even smaller quantities than conventional washing machines, providing for even more resource reduction. I find cold water cleans just fine; other members of my family think that warm water does a better job with specific tasks. Another advantage of using cold water: clothes are less likely come out different colors or sizes than they were when you put them in!

Line-drying takes more time but has many virtues. It consumes no energy other than your own, and it reduces wear and tear on clothes and linens, so they last longer. Some people enjoy hanging their laundry outdoors; since we are paranoid about pollen, we hang everything inside. There are a variety of clever racks and gizmos to accomplish this task, though all one really needs is a horizontal pole and an extra set of hangers, along with some clothespins, perhaps. When the garments or items are mostly dry, but still just a tad moist, I run them through the dryer for 5 to 10 minutes. The wrinkles disappear - NO IRONING!

Clotheslines are actually illegal in some locales; it seems that they look too primitive for the likes of some suburbs and condo associations. If you want to join the fight for line-drying, check out


Anonymous said...

I love line drying my clothes - they smell so good! Unfortunately thats not possible in an apartment, though - a drying rack and window combo is the best I can do these days.

Nick said...

You mentioned that some places have problems with visible clotheslines. If the neighbors are a little freaked out by a clothesline (a permanent addition to the yard) perhaps they could be gently conditioned to the idea by seeing a nice portable clothes drying rack like this one being used on the patio or deck during the warm months?

Then after awhile of getting used to the concept they would be OK with the clothesline and neighborhood peace would be maintained...