Though it might seem like a pedestrian chore, doing the laundry has a much bigger impact on the planet than you might think, around 25% of our clothing’s life cycle impact comes from washing and drying. Here in the UK, that equates, on average, to 468 wash cycles per year, for a family of four.
I would like to be able to give some straightforward advice such as: washing less; washing at lower temperatures; not using the tumble dryer; replacing old, end of life machines with more energy efficient models; and trying to slowly replace our synthetic clothing with natural fibre garments, to reduce the amount of plastic microfibres we are releasing into our waterways, all of which are good and valid points, but I have, however, discovered that it is not quite that simple.
There are indeed some good tips for reducing the amount we wash, the obvious one being to only wash clothes when they are dirty. I, (like many, I’m sure) am guilty of scooping up the family’s washing and bundling it straight into the machine, rather than sorting through to see what may still be clean. Machine manufacturer AEG estimates that around 90% of the clothes that go through a wash cycle, are in fact not dirty enough to warrant being washed. We could sponge off little messes, air our clothes on the line after wearing to make them last longer, do a sniff test on tops to see if they could last another day, not worry if we wear something 2 or maybe even 3 (?) days in a row – after all, in reality, how many of us actually do remember what our friend, work colleague or even our family members were wearing yesterday?
We have all been encouraged in recent years to reduce the temperature of our wash cycles to save energy, which does indeed generate significant savings (although we should run a higher temperature wash every now and then, to kill off any accumulated bacteria in the machine). But how many of us realise the water usage implications of those lower temperature washes? Synthetics and delicates programs and low temperature cotton programs use significantly more water than the higher temperature options. My 8kg machine will in fact only properly wash 8kg of washing on a cotton setting (the 60 degree option using 55 litres of water, the 40 degree option, 81 litres and very helpfully there is no water usage data for the 20 degree option!). For any other program you are supposed to reduce the size of the load quite dramatically, the standard synthetics program at 40 degrees, uses 60 litres of water, but for only 4.5kg of clothing. Delicates and even lower temperature wash cycles reduce the recommended load sizes further still. Other brand machines show similar data. There is also sadly, a much more detrimental implication for those low temperature, high water volume wash cycles, that I will come back to.
Most of us know that tumble drying is bad for the environment, it is estimated that around 70% of the energy usage of a wash cycle is attributable to the tumble dryer and a whopping 32% of UK consumers use their tumble dryers even in the summer, when other means of drying should be available. Line drying where possible will always be the best option, but where bad weather scuppers that, a clothes horse or Sheila’s maid (Traditional ceiling pulley rack) are good alternatives. For those worried about moisture build up in their homes from drying indoors, try running a higher rev spin cycle on your machine to remove as much moisture as possible before putting the washing out to dry, or it has also been suggested that running a dehumidifier at the same time, can be effective. Whilst not ideal, the energy usage of both options is still significantly less than the usage by a tumble dryer.
Then we get to the topic of ironing, which, quite aside from many finding it both tedious and time consuming, consumes electricity unnecessarily and deteriorates fabric. Try hanging clothes as soon as the wash cycle has finished, the water still in them will work with gravity to pull most wrinkles out. For wrinkle prone clothing, cut the final spin cycle, leaving even more water in the garment, creating more pull. That is of course, in direct conflict with the suggestion to spin more to avoid tumble drying, I did say at the beginning that this is not simple and I have no solution to offer for those that want to not tumble dry and not iron!
And now to that detrimental bit, I referred to, earlier. Many of us will have watched with horror, the TV and media coverage showing the release of microplastics (a term coined by Professor Richard Thompson from Plymouth University) from our clothing during the wash cycle, into our waterways. It is estimated that a city the size of Berlin (3.65 million people in 2019), releases wash related volumes of microfibres equivalent to 500,000 plastic bags every single day (700,000 microfibres per laundry load). Given that 60% of clothing now contains some form of plastic, and that waste treatment plants are not able to filter those particles, those bits of plastic go into our taps and out into the sea. It is nothing short of an environmental disaster. Up to 30% of marine plastic pollution could be from tiny particles released by households and businesses, putting marine ecosystems at risk, clogging intestinal tracts, suppressing hunger by making organisms feel full, causing infertility and irreversibly damaging corals.
Research has been ongoing with some recent surprising results. Previous assumptions were based around agitation in a wash cycle being responsible for the release of these fibres, cotton cycles typically using higher temperatures, less water and more agitation, synthetics, lower temperatures, more water and less agitation. The University of Newcastle has found that delicate wash cycles (which use about twice as much water as other settings) release on average, 800,000 more plastic microfibres than lower water settings. Somewhat ironically, the high volume of water, which is supposed to protect sensitive clothing from damage, actually “plucks” away more fibres from the material.
What can we do? It would not necessarily be eco-friendly or practical to replace all synthetic clothing with natural materials, but please, wherever possible, if, and when you do buy new clothes, consider whether there is a natural alternative you could buy instead. It will not stop the release of microfibres from our laundry, but at least the natural ones will biodegrade over time, the plastic ones will not. Other suggestions include: washing synthetics less often, with colder wash settings and for a shorter duration - for many of us that may involve consulting the datasheets for our machines to find the most suitable setting (most are available on-line if you no longer have a paper copy); fill your washing machine, rather than the smaller loads recommended by the washing machine manufacturers, for those colder settings. Consider buying a Guppy friend wash bag or Cora Ball. A Cora Ball is made from 100% diverted and recyclable materials and catches around 26% of fibres that would otherwise be washed down the drain. A Guppyfriend catches more fibres, but it is a bag and can only hold a certain number of items. This doesn’t of course solve the problem of microplastics, as you are still left with a blob of fibres that need go in your black bin and which will not biodegrade, but better there, than in our waterways. Neither device is cheap – around £25-£30 a piece and I cannot currently vouch for their actual effectiveness.
So, in summary, the suggestions for reducing your environmental impact will depend upon your own individual targets. Having done this research, mine will be to reduce water usage and the release of microplastics; for others, it may be to stop using a tumble dryer. The only clear-cut message that we can all take, whatever target we set ourselves, is that the most effective way to reach any of them, is purely and simply, to wash less.
Caroline Howarth, Holbeton PC Climate Emergency Subcommittee