What is the most eco-friendly way to launder clothes?

Yeah yeah, I know, quite boring, but if you want to be a good eco-freak you need to think about the environmental impact of all your activities, especially daily ones. Something to remember is that everything we do has an environmental impact, so no solution is perfect. A very good overview discussion here.

Tips for minimizing the environmental impact of laundry

  • Wash things only when they need it (smell or look dirty). Don't wash items just out of routine if you can help it.
  • Wash in cooler temps wherever practical. This uses less energy and it makes your clothes last longer. There's no strong evidence that washing whites at 90, for instance, really makes them stay whiter (but a very hot wash will knacker things sooner).
  • Try to hang up towels somewhere they can dry out between uses (they go manky and smellier faster if they don't get dry).
  • Think about washing bedding fortnightly rather than weekly. Back to the top point really.
  • Minimise packaging (that means buy in concentrate and large containers, don't buy individually wrapped tablets).
  • Wash in full but not over-full loads.
  • Use soda crystals to reduce the amount of conventional detergent needed (reduces phosphate release, AND usually saves you money, available in most UK supermarkets, too)
  • Make sure you're using the right amount of detergent for your needs, no less. Many people (not me, I admit!) find they can reduce the amount of detergent suggested and still get their clothes as clean as they like. It's worthwhile experimenting with.
  • Look for Zeolites on the ingredients list rather than Phosphates, zeolites seem to do the same job but with somewhat reduced environmental damage.
  • Don't use fabric conditioner if possible.
  • Don't tumble dry, Do air dry.
  • Don't iron things if possible.
  • Don't bother about a washing machine spin cycle above 1200rpm; higher speeds use more energy, but the clothes don't get any drier for it, anyway.

Best laundry detergent for the environment?

There are too many variables for anyone to say for sure, I reckon. And personal preference always comes into it, like whether you quite want a strong perfume or optical brighteners. Let's consider ingredients:

Enzymes: Enzyme-full detergents, what are called "biological" detergents in the UK, allow washing at lower temperatures. The energy used to heat water up is a big part of the environmental damage done by laundering clothes, and for this reason Julia Hailes (writes for The Daily Telegraph) reckons that biological detergents are best.

However, there's a lot of debate about different types of enzymes, whether they break down reasonably quickly before they get to eco-systems, how they are manufactured, and even whether they might be irritants to living things (many people believe that biological detergents irritate their skin, so stands to reason they might irritate other organisms, although no conclusive research exists to confirm that Biological detergents irritate human skin). This is the most credible-looking critical article I can find about the possible health and environmental problems with laundry detergent enzymes, and note that even it is only truly worried about some of the common enzymes under development (not all of them).

Contrary to widespread belief, biological does not mean "biodegradeable", and most OECD countries require a certain percentage of truly biodegradeable ingredients in laundry detergents, anyway.

Non-Bio detergents Basically these are the exact same products as the Bio detergents, but without the enhanced cleaning possible due to the enzyme additions. So the ingredients in Bio and Non-Bio detergents are as below. Because of the lack of enzymes, they need higher temps to effectively clean.

Soap Seems a bit obvious, though typically only about 5% by weight of your laundry detergent product. Typically extracted from palm kernal oil plantations (so not good for rainforests and their wildest residents). Sadly, even the so-called eco-laundry products also tend to contain palm oil extracts (that or coconut-derived products).

Perfumes: Very much an optional ingredient. Some suggest you buy an unscented detergent and then use a few drops of an more benign (in theory) essential oil like lavender to give the laundry a nice scent.

Optical brighteners: (and non-chlorine bleaches). These can make items look cleaner after a single wash, but they also dull colours on non-white clothes over time, leading to a shorter useful life. It makes a lot of sense to use specially formulated colour detergents instead on non-white items, which don't include this otherwise often unhelpful and unnecessary ingredient. Unfortunately, in the UK, I can't even locate a colour-formulated non-bio detergent (anybody know better)?

Phosphates This is where most of the so-called Green detergent products seem to score well (by having no or very low phosphates). That said, phosphates are already banned from clothes detergent products in many places (some countries, some US states). Phosphates make the soap clean more effectively, but they may lead to excess algae growth and oxygen starvation to other life forms and ecosystems as a whole. Keep in mind that the clothes detergent manufacture industry as a whole is trying hard to move away from phosphate dependence, and that most sewage works are geared up well (in wealthier nations, at least) to deal well with them and keep them out of ecosystems. In the meantime, if you really want to reduce your phosphate release, look for a no-phosphate dishwasher powder, such as Ecover tablets.

Surfactants These work by helping to break up stains and keep dirt already in the laundry water from settling back on your clothes. They are either made from Palm Oil (contributes to rainforest degradation) or from petrochemicals (and everything bad you can think of about that). The relative impact of each type is considered by P&G here (there's not a lot in it). You can avoid some surfactants with some of the niche market Eco-detergent products, but you are more likely with those products to be dis-satisfied with how clean your clothes actually get.

Soap nuts, Eco-balls, Laundry Balls, etc.

I tried soap nuts, they didn't work for me. Others rave about them (and other unconventional products) working very well. There's a lot of evidence to suggest that there's so much detergent residue still in most of our clothes that we can end up using soap-nuts or nothing at all in the machine as a detergent, for quite a while, before getting to the point that the clothes don't get clean any more.... because ultimately there seems to be only anecdotal evidence that any of these unconventional products work on their own.

Making your own?

Has anyone tried this, either from soap bars or even from ash in your own fireplace? Theoretically the greenest option of all, but not for the faint-hearted.


by Julie Stout on 16 March 2012
I have a lot of friends who make their own from soap and washing powder, only one friend who made her own soap from "scratch" from goat's milk, and this was only because she had a herd of goats and surplus milk. We used to heat with wood, so having plenty of hardwood ash, I undertook to store up enough surplus fat to make soap the old-fashioned way, just for fun. The problem is that after storing used fat for 6 months, even getting donations of used fats from neighbors, it was understood by me that the average household just does not have very much waste oil, not nearly enough to bother with making soap. No wonder they only did it once a year in olden days! The only way for me to do it was to buy oil/fats commercially, but is not an eco solution, really. I have since determined the least wasteful solution is to purchase industrial manufactured laundry detergents/soap, excepting in unusual circumstances, such as those enjoyed by my friend, who happened to have a number of dairy goats.
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