Cleaning Up Our Laundry
The more we learn about doing our laundry, the dirtier the story gets. There is a monumental amount of waste that goes into – and comes out of – getting clothes clean. The things we all know and probably already practice — like only washing and drying full loads, washing with cold water, using high-efficiency machines and the corresponding HE detergent, using the moisture-sensor setting to avoid needlessly over-drying clothes, cleaning the lint screen after each dryer load, and getting the entire dryer vent line professionally cleaned once annually — are all necessary steps. However, truly “greening” our laundry practices to the extent possible requires also changing the products we use to get our clothes clean.
The problem with many of the top-selling detergents and dryer sheets isn’t just their product packaging. There is also the matter of the wastewater and dryer emissions they generate. The truth about the exact impact of many of the ingredients in these products is difficult to ascertain, because as University of Washington professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and of Public Affairs Anne Steineman puts it, “Emissions from dryer vents are essentially unregulated and unmonitored.” However, she and her team have done studies monitoring in-home dryer vents after using liquid-scented detergents and dryer sheets. The exhaust they captured contained at least seven hazardous air pollutants, including acetaldehyde and benzene, which are classified as carcinogens by the Environmental Protection Agency. (The agency has established no safe exposure level for them.)
The second issue with traditional detergents, fabric softeners, and stain-lifting products is the packaging. It’s easy to see that the huge, thick, single-use plastic containers (especially for liquids) are obviously problematic, given our national recycling rates and capacity. However, even some smaller options that may feel more environmentally friendly – like pods – have their problems. Polyvinyl alcohol (PVA), a polymer that encases these pods, is touted as “biodegradable,” but the truth is that the conditions needed to truly degrade PVA are rarely met in wastewater treatment facilities. Instead, much of this plastic persists in the water after it gets run through these facilities and released back into the environment, contaminating our waterways and oceans.
Still, we all have to do laundry, so what’s the answer? First and easiest, skip the dryer sheets because they are chemically treated and contain plastic. Reusable wool dryer balls do the same job, are free of chemicals and plastic, and their efficacy has been well-proven over many years. They act as fabric softeners, reduce wrinkles, and can even shorten drying times. Also skip the stain lifters, instead spot cleaning by hand with some dish soap or washing soda.
As for detergents, there are many options that address some of the issues, and one that seems to address all of them. Laundry detergent sheets are widely used and are an improvement on traditional scented liquid laundry detergent and have some benefits over powder detergent. The sheets come compactly housed in thin cardboard boxes or envelopes, so they effectively reduce the staggering amount of plastic and other waste that we find ourselves generating at the household level. They are also widely available unscented, an important element to eliminating toxic vented dryer waste. However, most of these sheets still contain PVA. Laundry tablets appear to be the most promising alternative. They not only leave laundry just as fresh as the alternatives, but also can be found unscented and PVA free. They share attributes with eco-friendly, dye-free, scent-free powder detergent, but their thin envelope packaging and the smaller amount of product required per load mean a smaller environmental footprint.
Making a couple of small changes in how we do laundry can go a long way environmentally. As a bonus, we free up storage space in the laundry room and get to skip the supermarket trips lugging the huge plastic containers and boxes to and from the car!