Can You Green Your Laundry Without Losing Your Mind?

In a life already dominated by the spin cycle, Linda Sharps takes on the challenge of achieving a more environmentally friendly routine.

(Design by Lauren Wade)

Living in Eugene, Ore., with her family, Linda wrangles two rambunctious boys while ignoring the laundry.

You're familiar with the story of Sisyphus, right? The Greek king who was condemned by Zeus to forever roll a massive boulder up a steep hill, only to watch it come tumbling back down, repeating the task over and over as time stretched on, thus being damned to an eternity of useless efforts and unending frustration? If ever there was a modern Sisyphean task, it surely must be laundry. Especially if you have kids. 

I once achieved the Holy Grail of having washed, dried, and put away all the dirty clothes in my house. I swear to God I stood there basking in the exotic sensation of having no laundry to do for exactly 15 seconds before giant, towering piles of grimy socks, damp aromatic towels, and crumpled pajama bottoms rose all around me. 

I do a lot of laundry, is what I'm saying, and from everything I've read it's one of the most energy-sucking household chores that exists. I'm not just talking about my own energy either: A clothes dryer is second only to central air conditioning in terms of watts usage. Add in the water use, emissions created, and various laundry products that go swirling down the drains multiple times per day, and the act of getting things clean doesn't feel so green.

In fact, one 2010 study found that washing and drying clothes in the average American household was responsible for consuming the following each year:

• 9,718 gallons of water

• 1,991 kWh of electricity

• 1 metric ton of CO2e emissions

It's not likely that the amount of dirty clothes in my house is going to decrease any time soon, so what can I do to cut back on my laundry-related wastefulness? According to experts, the No. 1 change I can make is to stop tumble drying our linens. The average household running a dryer 200 times a year could save nearly half a ton of CO2e just by switching to a clothes rack.

The main problem with a clothes rack, of course, is that it isn't always practical. I mean, I live in Oregon. There are several months out of the year when my clothes would probably sprout mushrooms if I tried to hang them outside.

I could try it in the summer, though, or maybe even rig an indoor clothesline near our wood stove during our chilly wet months. Buuuuuut…well, I can't lie: I probably won't do either of those things.

Some other choices seem easier to adopt: making good use of the spin function on my washer, so clothes don't take as long to dry. Washing in cold water only. Washing one full load rather than two smaller loads, and always making sure the water level is set accordingly. Cleaning the lint trap on a regular basis, as well as checking the dryer vent. 

I could also get a new washer, since ours is an older top-loading model, and front-loading machines may use as much as 38 percent less water and 58 percent less energy. (But ours also cost all of $100 from Craigslist, so.)

The No. 1 change I've made, though, is that I've started setting my phone timer each time I dry our clothes. Our washer and dryer are out in the garage, and I tend to completely forget about the dryer cycle, which can result in me running it way more than is necessary (sometimes to un-wrinkle the stuff I forgot about). My phone chiming to life is a good prompt for checking the clothes to see if they're dry and pulling them out as soon as possible.

I've also started using an environmentally friendly detergent, which was easier than I thought. I've long been loyal to my preferred baking-soda-infused, OxiClean-boosted "stain fighting" brand, but after muddling through pages of info about the chemical ingredients in laundry soap—surfactants, bleaches, fragrances, dyes, enzyme stabilizers—I switched to a phosphate-free, biodegradable, non-animal-tested brand.

At first I figured our new hippie soap wouldn't clean as well, but I did a comparison test. Using my kids' socks (what?), here's how a big old smear of ketchup looked before and after my regular brand:

And my new earth-friendly concentrated detergent:

Pretty much the same, don't you think? That was with no stain treatment, in cold water. 

Some folks recommend making your own laundry detergent, which saves money in addition to cutting back on chemicals. Most recipes use a similar mix of water, bar soap, borax, and washing soda—it sounds like the only hard part is grating up the soap. I'd like to give that a try sometime, particularly because you can add essential oils to make it smell like whatever you want. (Is there an oil for "personal laundry maid"?)

The one thing I've really got going for me laundry-impact-wise is that I do zero dry cleaning, so hooray for dressing like a slob all the damn time. As for the rest of it…well, baby steps, right? Maybe someday I'll be air-drying my sheets after they've been luxuriously swirled in an ultra-large-capacity energy-efficient front-loading washer with TurboWash technology.

What do you do to make your laundry more environmentally friendly? 

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