Why washing clothes in cold water is better for the environment | Popgen Tech


And while you’re at it, don’t wash them so much.

(Video: Washington Post illustration; Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post; iStock)


In Alena Karpava’s household, the roar of the clothes dryer became an unfamiliar sound.

“I use the dryer maybe two, three times a year, only if it’s an emergency,” says Karpova, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro who studies textiles and clothing sustainability.

Instead, Karpova prefers to air dry her clothes. Tumble dryers, she says, “guzzle energy” and when combined with machine washing too often, they can wear out clothes much faster and have a big impact on the environment and climate.

Washing “may be the most important thing you do” to your clothes, says Mark Sumner, a lecturer at the School of Design at the University of Leeds who specializes in sustainability in the textile, clothing and fashion industries. Washing clothes can cause them to shrink, deform, fade or stick together (when small balls of fluff form on the surface of the clothes).

“It can be very damaging to the garment itself,” shortening the life of clothes and leading to the purchase of new clothes, Sumner says. “And of course, let’s not forget the energy, water and detergents used in the washing process,” which can also dump microfibers into waterways and exacerbate the problem of microplastic pollution. “It’s a double whammy.”

By making simple changes to your laundry routine, he and other experts say can go a long way in helping you cut emissions, save money and take better care of your clothes.

While many people focus on manufacturing when calculating the environmental impact of clothing, machine washing and drying clothing can often be a major source of pollution and emissions.

In fact, the impact of laundry can be “on the same order” as the clothing manufacturing phase, says Roland Geyer, a life-cycle assessment expert and professor at UC Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management.

“People are washing clothes more often than ever before,” says Sumner. According to Energy Star, the average American household does laundry 300 times a year.

A standard washer uses about 20 gallons of water for each load, and electric dryers can use an average of 1,800 to 5,000 watts, or about 1.8 to 5 kilowatt hours of electricity per cycle, according to Energy Star.

Choosing more efficient washers and dryers can make a difference for the planet and your wallet. Energy Star-certified washing machines typically use about 25 percent less energy and 33 percent less water than conventional models. Meanwhile, certified dryers are 20 percent more efficient than standard dryers.

A household that uses Energy Star-certified washers and dryers can reduce its carbon footprint by more than 400 pounds of CO2 annually, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which is the equivalent of planting a quarter acre of trees.

If every American household were to replace their appliances with more efficient models, the effects would be even greater. The EPA estimates that the cumulative cost savings would exceed $4.8 billion each year, and more than 41 billion pounds of greenhouse gases would be prevented from entering the atmosphere each year. This is equivalent to the emissions of almost 4 million cars.

Tips on how to make laundry day more environmentally friendly

But even if you have high-efficiency machines, experts say it’s still important to cut back on the amount of laundry you do.

“Every time we put these clothes in the washing machine, some of them go down the drain,” says Cosette Joyner Martinez, associate professor of design, housing and merchandising at Oklahoma State University. “So we lose another piece in the dryer to the lint trap we destroy our clothes.’

Know what to wash and when

Aside from noticeable odors or visible stains, the amount of time your clothes need to be washed depends largely on how they are worn and the type of material. For example, clothes you work out in and sweat in need to be washed more often than clothes you wear to work at a desk.

“Many people just wear a T-shirt once, and then they put it in the laundry basket without thinking about whether it is clean or not,” says Karpava. “People don’t think about, is it clean? Does it need to be washed?” You just go through everything.’

Experts say that what your clothes are made of also determines how long you can go between washes.

Natural materials such as wool or cotton generally need to be washed less frequently than synthetic materials such as polyester. While polyester is good for sportswear because of its moisture-wicking properties, the material is “oleophilic,” or oil-loving, attracting oil from the skin, which can contribute to body odor. To make matters worse, studies have shown that sweat-smelling compounds can stick to polyester fibers and not wash out completely, leading to a build-up of odors over time.

The chemical structure and “fiber morphology” of natural fabrics are very different from synthetic fabrics, says Priti Arya, associate professor of textile design and marketing at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. Wool, for example, is naturally resistant to odors. The fibers can absorb large amounts of moisture, which helps keep the skin drier and prevents the accumulation of sweat and bacteria that cause body odor. Wool fibers also have another unique property: the ability to trap odor molecules and release them only when washed.

Smelly compounds, sweat and oil are locked in the center of the wool fibers, says Arya. Even if you sweat, you likely won’t see sweat stains or smell.

On the other hand, she says, if you wear polyester for several hours, “you have to wash it because polyester loves our body oils and odors.”

According to Energy Star, about 90 percent of the energy needed to run a washing machine is used to heat water. Changing the temperature setting on your washing machine from hot to warm can cut your energy consumption in half. Washing with cold water can further reduce your energy footprint. According to the American Cleaning Institute, by washing four out of five loads of laundry in cold water, you can reduce CO2 emissions by 864 pounds per year, which is equivalent to planting 0.37 acres of forest in the US.

Experts recommend using the cold cycle as often as possible. “The temperature at which we wash is often too high,” says Joyner Martinez, adding that the hot water settings are only necessary for disinfection. Modern laundry detergents, even those not labeled for use in cold water, are usually formulated to clean just as well at lower temperatures. Although single-use detergent pods are becoming more popular, there is debate over whether they could be contributing to the growing problem of plastic pollution that threatens human health and the environment.

Is the film around the detergent pods really biodegradable? A debate rages.

Keep in mind that washing machines use the same amount of energy regardless of load size, so try to only run the machine when it’s full. And consider using a higher spin setting if your washing machine has such an option, which can reduce drying time.

Some experts also warn against dry cleaning too often. In addition to the energy required to power dry cleaners, traditional operations often use polluting chemicals that can harm human health and the environment. Some studies also show that chemicals can remain on dry-cleaned clothing.

In January, the Environmental Protection Agency added 1-bromopropane, a powerful dry cleaning solvent and air pollutant that has been linked to cancer and neurological damage, to its list of hazardous air pollutants — a designation that allows the agency to limit its emissions.

For the first time in more than 30 years, the EPA is adding hazardous air pollutants to its list

Certain clothing, such as heavily beaded or embellished clothing, require dry cleaning. But some delicate materials that you might send to the cleaners, like silk or wool, can be gently hand washed, says Katrina Kaspelich, director of marketing and partnerships for Remake, a global nonprofit that advocates for fair wages and climate justice in the garment industry. . Test a small section of the garment to make sure it’s suitable for hand washing – any color spots, deformation or shrinkage is a bad sign – and use cold water and mild soap.

If you do need to have dry cleaning done, you can ask for greener cleaning options, Kaspelich adds. Some cleaners offer professional wet cleaning, where clothes are washed in computer-controlled washers and dryers that clean gently. Another option is liquid carbon dioxide cleaning, which uses pressurized CO2 in combination with other cleaning agents.

Do you really need to take it to the dry cleaners?

You also don’t always need water and energy guzzling machines and detergent to keep your clothes fresh. “What people are really trying to do when they launder money is to make money [their clothes] smell good, says Joyner Martinez.

If possible, Sumner recommends hanging clothes outside in the sun, where they can be exposed to UV rays. Steam is another way to get rid of wrinkles and help freshen up your clothes. Hang your clothes in the bathroom when you shower or use a home steamer.

Air dry your clothes whenever possible, experts say. “When you dry the air, it saves the most energy,” says Joe Vukovich, an energy efficiency fellow at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

If you use a dryer, be sure to clean the lint screen, dryer duct, and humidity sensors regularly to maintain efficiency. Instead of using timed drying, choose an automatic cycle that uses moisture sensors to determine when your clothes are dry and reduces the chance of the machine running longer than necessary. You can also dry a lot of laundry back to back and use the residual heat.

Newer dryer models also often use less energy to dry a typical load on low than on high, even though clothes may take longer to dry, according to the American Council on Energy Efficiency.

But if you want to extend the life of your clothes, experts recommend abandoning the dryer. Air drying clothes that need to be washed more often, like sports gear, can make a “huge difference,” says Joyner Martinez. “The life extension we get in the product is very significant.”


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