Cultivating a solid zero waste laundry routine depends on a lot: do you have clothing that requires special care? Is your water hard? Do you have a washer and dryer in your house, or do you wash things by hand or drag it to a laundromat?
After several years of experimenting and moving through several laundry situations, I’ve settled on a very simple, cheap laundry routine that serves my minimal wardrobe well. But, like anything zero waste, what works for me may not work for you depending on your access, needs, etc. So I’ve tried to give you a fairly comprehensive look at what a zero waste laundry routine could look like.
how clean do we need to be?
The first part of zero waste laundry is to take a critical look at our habits. Like most current rituals, we’ve been conditioned to think anything less than ultra-sterilized and brand-new is inferior. The truth is, we don’t need to bleach our counters daily or wash our hair so much or launder all of our clothes after every wash. (The only reason we need to do that is so we keep buying all the products we’re told we’re required to have.)
That said, there is balance:
Georges Vigarello’s Concepts of Cleanliness tells the story of a French King Louis being surgically removed from a vest he had been wearing for four years. This does not sound particularly hygienic; we know about germ theory and the importance of keeping clean in controlling disease. But once we’re clean enough to stay healthy, escalating cleanliness doesn’t really benefit us.
Our preoccupation with cleanliness is due partly to technological developments – it’s ridiculously easy to launder clothes these days. But a bigger influence is a change in social conventions. Marketers peddling cleanliness products like laundry powder sell us elevated cleanliness ideals to increase their business opportunities. (source)
Interestingly, many of the studies or articles that share how we should actually be washing more than we think are sharing information from – shock – companies that sell cleaning products. (See this article from a researcher at Procter & Gamble, a company who owns Gain, Downy, and Tide just to name a few laundry-related subsidiaries. Surely there’s no bias there… right?)
So no, I’m not advocating for going totally no-wash, but there’s certainly room for us to evaluate our cleaning habits. (Plus, washing less means clothes last longer!)
A note on laundry & accessibility
Many people in the world don’t have easy access to a machine to wash their clothes – or even enough water to dedicate to the task. Most people on the planet definitely don’t have access to a dryer. This is the place where most of us recognize that the convenience of living a middle/upper class life in the US or Europe puts the burden of carbon emission reduction on us.
The truth is if you’re poor or living in poverty, your carbon footprint is much smaller by necessity, regardless of your day-to-day consumption habits. Not having running water, never flying, and not being able to afford the luxuries of life means you can leave the burden of carbon reduction firmly at the feel of the global middle and upper classes – and corporations.
For those of you surviving, do what you need to do. For those of you with means, do better.
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Pre-treating your clothes
I very rarely pre-treat my clothes, but it can certainly help if there are particularly tough stains hanging out on your fabrics. Those of you going zero waste with kids probably would find value in this! I have a few suggestions.
- DIY: it depends on the type of stain (Paris-to-Go has a great chart for it), but I typically find dabbing a bit of vinegar on the stain, letting it sit, and them rinsing with cold water before washing is the way to go.
- Buy: One of Green Indy’s partner companies, Bestowed Essentials, send me their Laundry Stain Remover Stick to try. It’s a winner! Just wet fabric and rub the stain stick on the stained fabric until lathered up. Wait about 10 minutes and throw in with the rest of your wash.
NB: before you dive into washing and drying your clothes, I highly recommend looking at these stats and adjusting your routine accordingly: “The carbon footprint of a load of laundry: 0.6 kg CO2e washed at 30°C, dried on the line 0.7 kg CO2e washed at 40°C, dried on the line 2.4 kg CO2e washed at 40°C, tumble-dried in a vented dryer 3.3 kg CO2e washed at 60°C, dried in a combined washer-dryer.” (source)
Washing your clothes
As usual, zero waste laundry reveals the truth about zero waste: it’s so much more than the products we use. While we spend our mental energy worrying about a zero waste detergent swap, we fail to think about all the other resources going into cleaning our clothes.
According to the Alliance for Water Efficiency, we use a lot of water for laundry. Laundry accounts for “15% to 40% of the overall water consumption inside the typical household of four persons”. A family of four using a standard washer will wash around 300 loads per year, or around 12,000 gallons of water.
By comparison, someone who drinks the recommended 2 liters of water daily and lives until 80 will only drink 15,428 gallons of water in their lifetime!
How to have a lower-waste washing cycle
- Use cold instead of hot water. Not only is cold water less stressful on clothes – which helps them last longer – it cuts out almost all of the energy used by washing machines during their cycle! Studies estimate 70-90% of the energy used by washing machines during a cycle is for heating water – so it’ll save on your electric bill. If you want to dive more into the benefits of and science behind cold water, read this article.
- Make sure you’re only doing full loads. Yes, this sounds basic, but I’m always surprised to see people doing very small, inefficient loads! Respect the resources by only doing laundry when you have a full load. Otherwise, bring a few items into the shower with you and give them a wash!
- DIY: this is a very simple laundry powder that I’ve used for years and found very effective. note that if you use cold water, it can be helpful to dilute your powder in a bit of warm water first. (I never do, but it may help distribute more evenly?) I add in a bit of white vinegar to soften the water.
- Buy: there are several ways to buy low-waste laundry detergent. First, you could buy relatively eco-friendly commercial products in compostable/recyclable packaging. You could also buy Biokleen Laundry Detergent from Refill Revolution, although they just pump it out of a larger plastic container for you. Dropps also sells a range of low-waste, pre-measured pacs of detergent.
Drying your clothes
The easy answer here is just don’t use your dryer. I’m mostly speaking to people in the US, as most of the rest of the world gets by perfectly fine without. (When I lived in Russia, I was told it was because “dryers will burn your house down” but I think most people see it as a waste of space and an impractical use of resources.)
That being said, there are some incredibly disgusting times here in the Midwest when it’s so humid your clothes will start to mold before they dry. So I use a dryer sometimes. Here’s how to do it most efficiently.
How to have a lower impact drying cycle
- Air dry when possible. If you have outdoor space, a rotating rack is a great space saver. Otherwise an indoor bamboo drying rack – or whatever random free space you have in your home – works just as well. Plus, less agitation = less wear and tear on your clothes!
- Dry your clothes on low-heat for a short time and hang them to finish drying. While the savings from not using a dryer aren’t huge, you can expect to save a couple bucks in electricity every month and reduce your yearly carbon footprint by a few thousand pounds!
- Keep the lint trap clean. Seriously – having a full trap can reduce your dryer’s efficiency by as much as 30%, causing your clothes to need even more time in the dryer.
- DIY: It’s so easy to make your own dryer sheets! You’ll need an old cotton t-shirt, scissors, white vinegar, and essential oils (optional) Cut your t-shirt into your desired sheet size. (Mine are about 4-inch squares.) Put into a container and fill with vinegar until fabric is totally saturated but not dripping wet. Add a few drops of essential oils if desired, seal lid, and shake well.
- Buy: Wool dryer balls are a great alternative to the common dryer sheets which receive low scores on EWG.org’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning. I received a set of 6 from Natural Thriving and really enjoyed them – they do seem to help the clothing dry quicker and dabbing a few drops of essential oil on them leave my clothes smelling nice despite our weird-smelling water! It’s estimated they’ll last for about 1000 loads – I’ve used mine for a few months so far and see no degradation. Save 25% if you’re one of the first 25 to order using code GREEN25 – and enjoy free shipping!
All in all, the more simple and less frequent you keep your zero waste laundry routine, the better. It doesn’t need to be complicated to be effective!