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Vintage laundry baskets. Courtesy of Germantown Laundromat

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How to start an eco-friendly laundry routine

A few simple swaps can reduce your energy usage and make your clothes last a whole lot longer

If you’re looking to make eco-conscious changes at home, your laundry routine is a great place to start. Not only will adopting earth-friendly laundry habits add up to a significantly reduced environmental impact, but it’ll mean cost savings and less wear and tear to your garments, which makes them last longer.

Curbed spoke with a few sustainable laundry experts to get their advice for taking up a new routine that uses less energy and fewer harmful ingredients.

Wash your clothes less often

“Our belief that we need to wash clothes after every wear is largely influenced by the companies that sell laundry products,” says Julia Watkins, author of the forthcoming book Simply Living Well. Unless they’re stained or stinky, most clothes can be worn several times before they need to be washed. This will also make your clothes last longer, as laundering wears clothes out.

Use less detergent

If you use just what you need, you’ll waste fewer resources, but most people are using more detergent than they need to—and detergent manufacturers don’t help by making the dosing cup much larger than the quantity needed and making the lines nearly impossible to read. Try marking your cup with a Sharpie so the line is easier to read. If you can see more than a little bit of suds in your machine, you are using too much!

Finish what you’ve got

First, know that using up whatever supplies you currently own is the greenest choice, so that the energy to manufacture and distribute it don’t go to waste. If you don’t like something you have, try to give it (when it’s safe to do so) to someone who will use it: a friend, neighbor, or perhaps somebody in a local Buy Nothing group.

Eco-friendly laundry detergent
For the greenest option, seek out a retailer that sells detergent in bulk like the Germantown Laundromat.
Courtesy of Germantown Laundromat

Pick an eco-friendly detergent

When it comes time to restock, choosing a sustainable laundry detergent is harder than it sounds. A few broad rules to follow: Don’t assume that anything marketed as “green” or “natural” is a better choice; there are no regulations about claims like this. Second, avoid superfluous ingredients like optical brighteners, dyes, perfumes, bleach, or fabric softeners—you want the simplest formulation possible. Here’s how to find the greenest option for your lifestyle:

Packaging

People wanting to avoid plastic might automatically default to a powdered detergent packed into cardboard, but there are some drawbacks to powdered detergents (more on that below). If you’re going for a plastic jug, bigger bottles use less plastic per volume of detergent. The greenest packaging option would be to refill at a bulk distributor, but those shops are not widely available.

Formulation

Powder: The packaging for powdered detergent is usually cardboard, which is biodegradable and/or recyclable—win! And shipping it will have a lower carbon footprint than shipping liquid, which is heavier. However, a study by the European Mermaids Life+ project found that powdered detergents release more microplastics with each wash cycle. Plus, powdered detergents may not work as well in cold water.
Liquid: The plastic bottles are a bummer and shipping liquids requires more energy. If you’re opting for liquid, go for an ultra-concentrated formulation—and only use the recommended dosage, which is sometimes just a tablespoon for a whole load!
Pods: Not all pods or tablets are created equal, and what’s most eco will come down to what detergent itself is made of. The dissolvable plastic film that encloses the detergent, however, is safe for the environment.

Ingredients

This one is tricky: Detergent manufacturers are not required by federal regulation to list any ingredients on the packaging, say Corinna and Theresa Williams, founders of Celsious, an eco-friendly laundromat in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The good news is you will find ingredient lists on the manufacturer’s website. The Williams sisters say they use the Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning database to check ingredient by ingredient for environmental toxins when researching laundry products.

Scents

As a general rule, unscented products are greener. “A lot of people associate scents with cleanliness,” says Janice Christie, co-owner of the Germantown Laundromat in Germantown, New York, “but there are so many harsh chemicals that come along with fragrance.”

Use cold water

Water heating is a major energy suck. According to the authors of Project Drawdown, hot water for showers, laundry, and washing dishes consumes a quarter of residential energy used worldwide. The laundering experts we spoke to all agreed that cold water is good for most garments and most detergents, so go forth and wash cold.

Sanitize selectively

A big misconception is that hot water sanitizes laundry, says Christie, but the water in a regular hot cycle doesn’t get hot enough to actually kill germs, so if that’s your reason for choosing hot, dial down the heat. If you have something you truly need to sanitize (say, bed linens used during an illness), she recommends you use the sanitize cycle on your dryer.

Dial down your water heater

For those times that you do choose to opt for hot water, make sure you’re not overheating the water. Turn down the thermostat on your water heater to 120 degrees F (many water heaters are set at 140 degrees F). (My family made the switch and I can personally attest that 120 degrees F is sufficiently hot.)

Capture the microfibers

A recent study of two microfiber-capturing devices conducted by the department of earth sciences at the University of Toronto found that both significantly reduced the numbers of microfibers in washing water. According to the study, the Lint LUV-R, a a filter that must be connected to the machine’s wastewater hose, captured an average of 87 percent of microfibers in the wash; the Cora Ball, a plastic do-dad that goes in the machine with your clothes, captured 26 percent. Another no-plumber-required option not tested in the study is the Guppyfriend, a permeable bag that claims it captures the microfibers while still allowing your clothes to get clean.

Drying rack.
A Brabantia Lift-O-Matic Rotary Dryer makes outdoor air-drying a breeze.
Courtesy of Brabantia

Reduce your drying impact

Air-dry your clothes: This is actually the biggest way to eco-fy your routine. Clothes dryers are huge energy hogs, and using the dryer also wears out your clothes faster, meaning they will be headed to the landfill sooner. You can use an outdoor clothesline, a drying rack, or even just hangers on a shower rod for small loads.
Or try a hybrid approach: If you don’t like the stiff, sometimes crunchy feel of air-dried clothes, Germantown’s Christie suggests you tumble clothes for 10 minutes in the dryer and then hang them dry. “The pre-dry should make a big difference,” she says.
If you do use the dryer, use it wisely: Dry towels and heavier items separately from lightweight ones. Watkins notes that this will speed up drying times.

Say goodbye to fabric softener

To reduce your family’s exposure to a variety of chemicals that may cause asthma and allergies, the Environmental Working Group suggests you simply skip fabric softener. The teams at both Celsius and Germantown recommend filling your fabric softener compartment with white vinegar to help with softness (don’t worry, your clothes won’t smell like vinegar!).

Ditto on the dryer sheets

They’re not as toxic as some blogs make them out to be, but they do fall squarely into the category of additional waste. In my own experience, you can get by without them, especially if you aren’t washing a ton of synthetic-fiber garments, which tend to have more issues with static. The Williams sisters and Christie say wool dryer balls will get rid of wrinkles and creases by pummeling your clothes.

Don’t sweat the chlorine bleach

Chlorine bleach is a powerful chemical, but it’s not the environmental scourge that you may imagine it to be. Household bleach is a 5.25 or 6 percent solution of sodium hypochlorite, which breaks down almost completely into salt and water before it leaves your home. Cheryl Mendelson, author of Laundry: The Home Comforts Book of Caring for Clothes and Linens, writes, “In deciding whether or not you will use household chlorine bleach keep in mind this question: If you are going to use an alternative in place of chlorine bleach, are you sure that it is better for the environment?” My family still uses bleach sparingly, including to keep our white towels white. Do avoid detergents that have built-in bleach because these products contain bleach stabilizers and activators, which don’t break down as readily.

Swap out your spray pretreatment

Pretreating with the correct stain treatments will allow you to use lower temperatures and fewer chemicals in your wash, but that doesn’t mean you need a conventional spray loaded with questionable chemicals and packed in a spray bottle that cannot be recycled. Corinna Williams tells her customers to treat “like with like.” If you have a greasy stain, use an oil-based soap (Williams recommends a vegan soap stick). For acids, like coffee, red wine, or fruit juice, dab the stain with white vinegar; if the acidic stain persists, sprinkle an oxygen brightener (aka sodium percarbonate) on and add a little warm water to create a paste. (Pssst: The leading product in this space, OxiClean, includes optical brighteners and fragrance, so seek out an alternative that is pure sodium percarbonate.)

Celsious laundromat
Celsious in Williamsburg, Brooklyn is outfitted with high-efficiency front loaders.
Courtesy of Celsious

Invest in a high-efficiency washing machine...

...but only if your current machine is at the end of its life. Efficient washing machines can reduce water use by 17 percent, according to Project Drawdown.

Think before you shop

Before you purchase clothes or home textiles, think about the care phase, say the Williams sisters. Ask yourself, “How am I going to take care for these?” If you wear a lot of makeup, buy dark-colored towels. If you’re a sweaty sleeper, maybe white sheets aren’t for you. Watkins also encourages you to shop for natural fibers like organic cotton, linen, hemp, wool, and leather to help prevent microfibers from entering our waterways.